Fighting the unknown: Covid-19 task force co-chairs Gan Kim Yong, Lawrence Wong sum up challenges

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Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chairs of the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, reflect on efforts against the pandemic in the past year and the road ahead.

SINGAPORE - Over the course of the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way Singaporeans live, work and play.

In an 1½-hour interview on Tuesday (Jan 19) at the National Press Centre in Hill Street, the two ministers jointly chairing the task force tackling the crisis summed up the challenges they faced over the past 12 months.

These included dealing with uncertainty, implementing their ideas, and communicating the reasons for their decisions.

Facing the unknown

When Covid-19 cases first began emerging in Singapore, most people who showed respiratory symptoms were given a five-day medical certificate. Return to get tested only if your symptoms persist, they were told.

This advice was later proved wrong when scientific evidence showed that the coronavirus can be transmitted even when a person appears perfectly healthy.

That misstep taught Singapore that it cannot rely entirely on lessons learnt from earlier outbreaks, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said.

Instead, the country had to adapt its modus operandi very quickly to the reality on the ground as more data emerged.

"One thing we have to bear in mind is that the next outbreak will, again, be very different from this one," Mr Gan added. "If we simply replicate what we do today and assume that we have already learnt the lesson... I think the outcome would probably again be different."

Mr Lawrence Wong, who was appointed the Education Minister midway through the pandemic in July 2020, after being the Minister for National Development since September 2015, said "bumps along the road" were inevitable when faced with so many unknowns.

"Clearly, if we had a better picture then, you know, we would have taken different measures," he said. "The key, as I've said before, is that we have to be quick to adapt, to adjust, to be nimble, put things right, recover from setbacks and move forward. And that's the attitude we have."

When asked which decisions they felt the greatest uncertainty about making, the ministers brought up the circuit breaker, which kicked in on April 7 and was lifted on June 2.

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This drastic measure would significantly impact livelihoods and individuals' well-being, while the benefits were uncertain, Mr Wong said, on weighing the decision. "On balance, would it do more harm than good? Or would we be able to address effectively (and) slow down the transmission?"

The timing of the circuit breaker was also a matter of much debate.

If it was called too soon, Mr Gan said, Singapore might have faced the prospect of a second circuit breaker later that year. But put in place too late, and Covid-19 clusters could have shot up.

"We needed to time it, but we can never be perfect in timing," he added. "So we just had to have a sense; make a judgment."

When Singapore first began its gradual reopening, the opposite debate took place. In particular, the task force was leery of allowing people to visit each other's homes, especially when these visits involved the elderly.

"We were initially unsure. What if we allowed it and something happened?" Mr Wong asked. "On the other hand, if you don't allow and people remain isolated, is that good for their well-being? So it was a very difficult judgment call either way."

The Government will be doing a full review of its systems and processes after this pandemic is over, he added.

"Just as we have learnt from Sars... after Covid-19, we want to learn from this experience, to do even better and be better prepared for the next pandemic - and for Disease X in the future."

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Implementing the rules

Each time the task force briefed the Cabinet on measures it intended to take, it would receive a flurry of ideas and suggestions.

But on one occasion, Mr Wong recounted, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him: "You know, we can give you ideas. But in the end, you have to decide what can be executed, what can be implemented."

His advice encapsulated one of the task force's key challenges - translating plans into reality given the limited resources on hand, and making rules that would be easily applied across the board.

One example was the rule on social gatherings, which are currently limited to eight people.

Mr Gan pointed out that a household of 10 would face no increased risk of contracting the virus if they shared a single table in a restaurant, given that they already lived together.

"But at the same time, it's very difficult to enforce on the ground; very difficult to explain to the table next door that you're from the same family," he said.

"And it's very challenging for waiters to have to check your NRICs to make sure that you stay together."

Diners in a restaurant at Harbourfront Centre on Dec 27, 2020. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The task force opted for measures that were simple to understand and implement, Mr Gan said.

The ministers faced a similar problem when dealing with the issue of widespread infections in migrant worker dormitories, where case numbers rose quickly and went into the thousands.

Asked what they would have done differently, Mr Wong replied: "We would have done what we are doing today in the dorms."

In other words, migrant workers would have been put on a regular Covid-19 testing regime, he said, adding: "We would have taken far more measures than we had at that time, obviously."

The challenge was that Singapore did not, at the time, have the capability to test at the level it is doing today.

"We had limited test kits, we had limited resources in terms of manpower," Mr Wong said.

"Each time you deploy a resource to a particular area, it means that you don't have resources to deploy to another area. So it's one thing to wish to do everything, but it's another to have the resources to execute and implement it well."

The country is now in a stronger position, with better defences and improved testing and tracing capabilities, but it must remain vigilant, Mr Wong said.

"Better doesn't mean perfect," he hastened to add. "Better doesn't mean you will be 100 per cent foolproof."

The art of communication

It was one thing to implement plans, but another thing to convince people of their necessity - especially when these decisions proved unpopular.

For one thing, as more was learnt about the disease, Singapore had to continually adjust its approach and communicate the reasons for the new measures, Mr Gan said.

Singapore had to continually adjust its approach and communicate the reasons for the new measures. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

He gave the examples of the implementation of the circuit breaker and the raising of the Disease Outbreak Response System alert level to orange, both of which were addressed by PM Lee in separate speeches to the nation.

Communication became especially challenging when people became caught up in the prevailing mood of the time, Mr Wong added.

Early last year, for instance, some segments of the public called for the Government to impose very strict safe distancing measures, in the hope that life would return to normal a month later.

"We had to tell people: 'No, look, this is a long fight. It's a marathon, and whatever we do has to be sustainable, and our measures are based on data, based on evidence,'" Mr Wong recalled.

Then, the pendulum swung the other way in October, after Singapore saw no community cases for a sustained period.

"The mood was: 'Why don't we open up faster? Why are we still doing all these phase two measures? When can we get to phase three?' Mr Wong said.

"And we had to explain the opposite, that... we are doing okay, but the virus is still circulating. And if we were to relax too quickly, it's very easy for a resurgence of cases to come back."

These shifts in public sentiment are not unique to Singapore. But they pose a continuing challenge even today, as the country works to chart a steady course based on scientific evidence, he noted.

Did public opinion have an impact on the task force's decision-making process?

Mr Wong said in coming up with measures to keep Singapore safe, the task force first has to take into account public health requirements. A decision is made after experts are consulted and the scientific evidence is studied.

Public sentiments are considered later, when the discussion turns to communicating what has to be done.

"How do you explain why we may not be able to move on something even though the public demands it? Or why, you know, we may have to do certain things that may not be so readily acceptable or so readily understood?" Mr Wong said.

"So the challenges are in that area - rather than influencing what is necessary and the right thing to do from a public health point of view."

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