Coronavirus: Police officers using investigative expertise to identify links between infected patients, says Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam with officers involved in contact-tracing operations at the Police Cantonment Complex on Feb 11, 2020. PHOTO: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

SINGAPORE - Police officers who are trained in investigative work have been tapped to identify links across coronavirus cases that initially seem unrelated and to trace close contacts of the patients.

This job - on top of their regular crime-fighting duties - is an important part of ring-fencing the virus by finding people who may have been infected so they can be quarantined or treated if necessary, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (Feb 11).

"When you have someone who is diagnosed as having the illness, you want to be able to trace back to all the people he or she met," he said, adding that this requires a lot of careful investigative work, including tracking the person's movements over a period of time.

"You can imagine that in a place like Singapore, with that frequency of movement and the frequency of contacts - a case in any city - that this is not an easy task. So they are doing it very intensely."

Officers from the Singapore Police Force - working alongside Ministry of Health (MOH) officials - had earlier discovered how a possible new cluster had formed, when the activities of three Singaporean patients and two previous cases - a couple from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, visiting family here - intersected at The Life Church and Missions Singapore in Paya Lebar Road.

It took them about a day to establish the link between the cases, after conducting further interviews and tapping a variety of data sets.

Mr Shanmugam was visiting the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Command Centre at the Police Cantonment Complex, which has been involved in tracking down close contacts of the patients, as well as uncovering links between new cases and previously announced ones.

He said that in some way, these are the things the officers do in the context of normal investigations.

"The key thing here was to first identify carefully and track the movements, step by step, and then pick out the similarities. It is a lot of painstaking work, as you can imagine, because these are movements over several days to different places."

MOH officers first interview the patients or their next of kin to gather what they had done and who they had met in the last 14 days. These activity logs include where the patients had meals and with whom, the mode of transport they used to travel, and whether they had simply gone out for a stroll.

If there are information gaps, police officers would find out more. The information is then analysed to see if there are any overlaps between cases.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Deculan Goh, assistant director of the Specialised Crime Division at CID, said the work can be challenging and involves "painstaking data analysis and extensive legwork on the ground".

"Our officers understand that this is a whole-of-government effort, and we all need to pitch in and contribute where we can," he added.

"Although we are doing this on top of our regular crime-fighting duties, our officers are stepping up and putting in extra hours to support the national response to the coronavirus outbreak."

Besides contact-tracing operations, police officers are also involved in managing border operations and conducting temperature checks.

On Monday, Mr Shanmugam visited the Civil Service Club @ Changi II, a chalet which has been designated a government quarantine facility. He said that about 200 police officers have been deployed islandwide to administer security at government quarantine facilities, and more may be roped in when more of these facilities are set up.

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