Singapore is marshalling its resources against the rapidly escalating Wuhan virus outbreak, with a multi-ministry task force set up to fight the infectious disease on all fronts when - not if - it hits home.
The mystery virus, which can now be passed from person to person, has already killed 17 people and infected at least 540 throughout China, with cases also surfacing in Taiwan, Japan, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States.
"While we take all the preventive measures, it is inevitable that we will see a potential case coming into Singapore, sooner or later," Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday. "Therefore, it is important for us to ensure that we're able to mount an effective response."
The Ministry of Health (MOH) yesterday advised people not to travel to Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. Likewise, the Chinese authorities have told people not to travel into or out of the capital of China's Hubei province.
MOH has also advised travellers to avoid contact with live animals and the consumption of raw or undercooked meats, and to observe good personal hygiene.
As of yesterday, temperature screening at Changi Airport was expanded to cover all inbound travellers on flights arriving from China.
Noting that MOH is at the front line of the public health issue, Minister for National Development Law-rence Wong, who is chairing the task force together with Mr Gan, said the seriousness of the situation called for a "whole-of-government, even whole-of-Singapore, response".
This would include defensive measures at schools and workplaces, and ensuring economic continuity.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development, for one, issued an advisory yesterday to various pre-schools and student care centres to take precautionary measures in order to protect children and staff.
It is also working closely with community-based and residential facilities, including welfare homes and disability homes, to ensure that the necessary precautions are taken.
The task force, which was formed in consultation with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, will involve several ministers from various ministries. It holds its first meeting today, just before the Chinese New Year weekend, when infections are expected to spike as a large number of travellers fly to and from China.
Singapore saw three suspected cases yesterday, with seven others cleared of having the virus.
MOH said that all travellers should monitor their health closely for two weeks upon return to Singapore and seek medical attention promptly if they feel unwell. They should also inform their doctors of their travel history.
The Chinese health authorities have so far been unable to determine the origin of the virus but they say the new virus, which has no vaccine, is mutating and spreading.
In a Facebook post last night, Mr Heng said: "Although Singapore has not seen a confirmed case, we must be ready to mount an effective response when it happens... Let us stay vigilant, as we roll out precautionary measures to protect our people."
Mr Gan called for Singaporeans to be supportive of healthcare workers as they carry out their duties, and to be understanding and patient.
"As we roll out many of these measures, it may create inconveniences for some, especially those who travel overseas and may be subject to temperature screenings as they return to Singapore," he said. "I hope that they will understand and bear with us because, although there are some inconveniences, it is important for us to roll out these measures to ensure that we protect Singaporeans."
The Chinese stock market reversed early losses to end higher yesterday, as Beijing vowed to contain the outbreak. The Singapore market saw a recovery too, with the Straits Times Index closing up 0.2 per cent.