Govt didn't get every call right on Covid-19, but was prepared to revise, reverse decisions: PM Lee

Many difficult and consequential choices had to be made over the past two years, including imposing a circuit breaker. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While the Government did not get every call right in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, it was prepared to update, revise and even reverse its decisions as more information was uncovered, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Many difficult and consequential choices had to be made over the past two years, often without an established playbook as a guide or the luxury to "wait and see", he said on Tuesday (April 12).

"We had to judge what was best at that point with incomplete information, and act on that in the fog of war. Indecision, or waiting for all the facts to come in, would have been far worse," he added.

Being prepared to make tough calls in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity is among the lessons Singapore must draw from the Covid-19 crisis, which has severely tested the Government, said PM Lee.

He was speaking to senior public servants at the annual Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre. It was the first such physical ceremony to be held in three years.

PM Lee said while Covid-19 has been the crisis of this generation, the public service has responded well at every stage, working closely with political leaders and doing its best to stay on top of the situation.

"Your efforts demonstrated the difference that a good government makes," he said.

At the start of the pandemic, a judgment call had to be made on whether to let the outbreak burn through the population so that safety can be reached through herd immunity, or to tighten up and keep cases as low as possible, he said.

"We determined right from the onset that we would not pay the high price in human lives," he added.

Singapore closed its borders. Strict measures were implemented, and a circuit breaker was imposed, where many economic and social activities were halted.

These efforts were made to get everyone protected through vaccines and therapeutics that were then yet to be invented, he said.

"Fortunately, up to now, we have managed to secure our overriding aim: to protect precious lives and prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible."

A year later, when the highly infectious Delta variant emerged, another judgment call had to be made on when and how to pivot from this strategy.

With a sizeable portion of the population, especially the elderly, still unvaccinated, the decision was made to wait for a few more months until nearly everyone had been vaccinated, he said.

The second lesson is to look beyond the immediate problems, no matter how pressing they may be, to anticipate and plan ahead, said PM Lee.

When Singapore had a few dozen daily cases and was doing a few hundred polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests a day, planning started for what would happen when there were hundreds of cases and a need to do thousands of PCR tests daily.

Later, when hospitals managed hundreds of Delta cases daily, the thinking shifted to how Singapore can cope with thousands of cases a day, he said.

Contingency plans had to be made well in advance.

"If we had waited until cases actually surged before acting, it would have been much too late."

The Government sometimes had to place bets even at substantial cost, said PM Lee.

Knowing that vaccines would be a game-changer and there would be a scramble for them when they became available, Singapore moved quickly to secure advance commitments for supplies.

Calculated risks were taken on promising candidates being produced using different technologies, he said.

"This cost us a tidy sum, and we accepted that not every bet would pay off. But we judged this a small price to pay to protect Singaporeans and accelerate our move to the new normal."

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The third lesson, said PM Lee, is to implement policies well.

This consists of identifying priorities, breaking them down into specific tasks, marshalling resources and getting agencies to work together.

"At the same time, you must also communicate, engage the stakeholders, and get your message across to the public."

One example is the national vaccination programme, which was not just about setting vaccination targets, but also putting out credible medical advice, presenting information transparently to dispel mistruths, and convincing the public that the vaccines are safe.

The logistics had to be worked out to actually deliver jabs into arms. At its peak, 2,000 staff were running 40 vaccination centres islandwide, administering more than two million jabs a month.

At its peak, 2,000 staff were running 40 vaccination centres islandwide, administering more than two million jabs a month. PHOTO: ST FILE

Many other operations were mounted during the pandemic, such as dealing with the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, securing essential supplies, ramping up contact tracing and implementing the home recovery programme.

"Each one was a major undertaking. Collectively, they stretched our resources to the limit. At times, we had to call in the Singapore Armed Forces for assistance. But each operation illustrated how critical good execution on the ground was."

Leaders in the administrative service are not just the brains of the public service, but have to take command responsibility with other public service leaders, he said.

This was to deal with the issues as a whole of government, marshal resources across both public and private sectors, implement and improvise solutions, roll up their sleeves to make the whole system work, and get the job done.

"We have made significant progress in our fight against Covid-19. We are getting closer to the finish line, but still we cannot be sure that we are almost arriving. The virus has surprised us many times and will surely do so again," PM Lee said.

"But overall, we are in a much better position. We can be quietly confident of dealing with whatever may come, and continuing to progress towards the new normal."

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