SINGAPORE - All social activities for seniors organised by government agencies will be suspended for 14 days from Wednesday (March 11), as Singapore ramps up measures to protect the group particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
This comes amid a growing number of infections linked to a Chinese New Year dinner at Safra Jurong - currently Singapore's largest coronavirus cluster with 36 cases - attended by many senior citizens.
The suspension will affect courses and activities at community centres and residents' committees in areas like music, drama, dance, exercise, basic IT and career development.
The People's Association (PA), which runs many of these programmes, said the suspension will affect 2,600 classes and 11,000 activities attended by about 290,000 participants.
In addition to temperature taking and health and travel advisories, the PA will also progressively implement measures for all activities.
It will reduce the number of participants per activity to ensure sufficient space between them, adjust the rigour of activities to minimise contact and exertion, and shorten the duration to minimise exposure.
Care services for seniors such as nursing homes, inpatient and day hospices, senior care centre services and home-based care services, will continue to run but with additional precautions.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a press conference on Tuesday: "While we encourage seniors to be active, there is now evidence of Covid-19 transmission among the seniors participating in such social activities, because some individuals who were unwell had continued to participate in them."
He added: "We want to protect seniors; they are more vulnerable from a medical point of view."
The PA defines seniors as those aged 50 and above.
The new measures are the most extensive social distancing efforts to date, and could be extended even further.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that Singapore's approach must shift - maintaining basic surveillance at borders but doubling down on measures within the country, including social distancing.
"Over time, we will have to ramp up and do more," he said, and this could have an impact on public events, community activities, schools, workplaces and places of worship.
"We are mindful that these can be very disruptive. If we were to do all at one time, we will literally have to shut down our city and everything will grind to a halt," he said.
He likened the measures to "circuit breakers" where Singapore tries to "stop the transmission chain and flatten the epidemic curve".
"It's critical to implement the right measures at the right time," said Mr Wong, who together with Mr Gan chairs a multi-ministerial task force on Covid-19.
Mr Gan, again, urged individuals to be socially responsible to slow down the transmission of the virus, including not going out if unwell and not doctor hopping.
He revealed that more than one in five cases had gone out despite being unwell.
About 35 of the 160 confirmed cases did not minimise social contact although they had already developed fever or respiratory symptoms, or consult a doctor early when unwell. More than a fifth continued to work or carried on with their daily routine despite being sick.
The dinner at Safra Jurong, for example, was attended mainly by seniors who took part in singing classes and other activities such as qigong and line-dancing at several community clubs (CCs) and residents' committees (RCs).
Many were in multiple groups across the island. One person was already unwell when attending the event on Feb 15, and later tested positive for the coronavirus.
This could have led to 18 additional cases who were also at the dinner and later tested positive, Mr Gan noted. Out of the 18, 10 had continued with daily activities despite feeling unwell, spreading the virus to another 17 positive cases who had not been at the dinner.
Meanwhile, the Wizlearn Technologies cluster had three staff members who continued with their daily activities despite feeling unwell, one of whom spread it to a family member who also continued with daily activities while ill. This resulted in an additional four cases who had not worked at the company.
The Health Ministry's director of medical services, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, said in the latest update that Singapore had six new cases of the virus, bringing the total to 166.
Twelve patients are seriously ill and in the intensive care unit.