Tough decisions painful but necessary to save lives, says Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE - It is a time of tough decisions that must be made quickly, often without complete data or information, in a rapidly evolving situation, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who is co-chair of a multi-ministry task force battling the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore.

At all times, one thing is paramount: the health and safety of Singaporeans.

"Our basis of making decisions has to be first and foremost from a public health perspective, doing what is right and necessary," he said in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times.

"That to me is the key priority."

What is important is to do what is right and necessary to save lives, while recognising that there is an economic impact to measures that have been rolled out.

Mr Wong said: "There will be economic consequences from these public health measures, but I think that we will have to just manage it... Rather than worry too much about the economic impact and because of that, choose not to take certain important public health measures."

Singapore has implemented "moderate to high-level precautions", he said. These include increasingly tougher measures such as border controls, discouraging travel, and safe distancing initiatives.

Even as the nation should brace itself for the Covid-19 outbreak to be here for the long haul and life that will not go back to normal any time soon, some of these measures can be eased if everyone does his or her part, he said.

"So I have used the analogy that what we are looking at is a set of, a series of, brakes that we can apply, but apply throughout the next six months to the end of the year or even longer."

Said Mr Wong: "If the situation is managed well by then, we could lift our foot off the pedal slightly but not completely. We won't go back to zero... But if the cases still (continue to) rise, unlinked cases still rise and the situation warrants it, then we will have to apply more pressure on the brakes."

If this happens, even tougher measures may be needed to help slow down the virus spread.

 
 
 
 

"That's where we will be for months and we have to be mentally and psychologically prepared for this," said the minister, who has been working from home and cutting back on outings.

Singapore has so far reported more than 900 Covid-19 infections, with over 420 patients still in hospital. Three people have died.

Speaking of his experience since he was made co-chair of the task force in January, Mr Wong said: "Every day, we are discussing, thinking through potential scenarios of how the virus can unfold, and then developing new measures, adjusting and updating our measures."

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong co-chairs the task force with Mr Wong.

The Government knows that its decisions have an impact on people's lives and livelihoods.

But not implementing the public health measures does not mean there will be zero economic impact, Mr Wong said.

As the virus spreads, people would stop travelling or going out, so the impact on the economy would still be there.

What he fears most, and the reason he does not "have peaceful sleep at night", is one super-spreader event.

"You only need one event to be a super-spreader event that can cause a large uncontrollable outbreak and then it starts to accelerate.

"When it accelerates and it's out of control, it overwhelms your hospital system and then you start to see rising mortality rates, particularly amongst the more vulnerable groups."

His biggest concern now is the local unlinked cases. There are close to 100 of such cases.

 
 
 

This figure, he said, is more important than the overall number of new cases, as it points to how quickly the virus is spreading in the community.

"We do know that the virus continues to circulate within our own population," he said.

Another worry is for a new Covid-19 epicentre.

He explained: "We had a first wave of imported cases from China, and then a series of local cases.

"Now, we are dealing with a second wave of imported cases and a consequential wave of local cases as well."

If the virus epicentre moves to other parts of the world, there may be yet another wave of returning Singaporeans.

That would not be a problem if those who are sick isolate themselves. While most do, there are some who flout these measures, including the stay-home notice which prevents people from leaving their homes for 14 days.

Mr Wong said: "When we see such breaches, we will not hesitate to prosecute them, and to use the full force of the law to go after them."

To people who have suggested a two-week lockdown to reset the country back to normalcy, he said there is no short-term fix. "It's just not going to happen."