Highlights from the exclusive interview with Minister Lawrence Wong about Singapore's fight against Covid-19

ST's Ms Salma Khalik with National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on April 1, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - In a special edition of The Big Story on Wednesday (April 1), The Straits Times had an exclusive interview with National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-disciplinary task force for Covid-19.

Here are some highlights of the 45-minute interview:

On the Covid-19 situation in Singapore

Q: The numbers around the world have been going up a lot, right? In Singapore, they're still relatively contained. But given what's happening in the other countries, what are your greatest fears about this pandemic?

Mr Wong: If you look at how the virus spreads so quickly, 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 among the more vulnerable groups. And so that's our biggest worry - that even with the best of measures, even taking all the precautions that we do, and even with an excellent contact tracing system which people call the gold standard, with all of these things, we do recognise that there are still risks, and these risks can cause significant harm to Singaporeans.

Q: You had said that we are at a critical time Why is it a critical time now? Is it because the local unlinked cases are going up?

Mr Wong: We are now at the phase where I think we have been able to manage and control the imported cases, isolate them, keep them in hotels by and large, and prevent the infection from these imported cases to the local community.

But we do know that the virus continues to circulate within our own population. That has been the case even from the start, but it is rising now. And we see more local cases, we see more unlinked cases, which is of concern... (and) why we say this is a critical part and we do have to work together, get all Singaporeans to understand that every person is in fact on the front line. Every Singaporean can make a difference in slowing down the spread of the virus today.

Q: The Government has also mentioned that the virus will be with us for the long term. How long is long term?

Mr Wong: There is no short-term fix that will cause us to reset back to a normal situation. It's just not going to happen. We are now at a perhaps moderate to high level, where we apply more brakes under the set of measures that we say will continue till end-April. 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 - and then we would maybe go to a sort of a more moderate posture.

But if it is not, if the cases still rise, unlinked cases still rise and the situation and the conditions warrant it, then we will have to apply more pressure on the brakes and go for even more measures to help slow down the virus spread. That's where we will be for months - and we have to be mentally prepared and psychologically prepared for this.

On the TraceTogether App

Q: The TraceTogether contact tracing app was launched last month and a tool to streamline contact tracing processes, if more Singaporeans were to come on board and use the app. Why will the TraceTogether app make such a big difference to contact tracing?

Mr Wong: You rely on the person's memory, and it takes time and it may not be complete because there will be lapses. But if there was a better way to track down all the close contacts, then the ability to catch all of the close contacts would be much more comprehensive and faster. So this can potentially be a very effective tool for contact tracing. But we do need more Singaporeans to come on board, download and turn on the app.

On how the task force works

Q: A lot of people get very curious about how Covid-19 related decisions are made. Could you take us behind the scenes like when you people decide on something, is the decision made by you and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong as the co-chairs, is it made by the entire committee, or does it go to the Cabinet before certain decisions are made?

Mr Wong: The task force which Health Minister Gan and I co-chair are empowered to decide on the critical public health measures. So we decide as a team. We have a team of ministers together with us on the task force. And each time we arrive at a decision, we keep the others in government updated on our decisions. Our basis for making decisions has to be first and foremost from a public health perspective, doing what is right and necessary. So that to me is the key priority. There will be economic consequences from these public health measures, but I think then we will have to just manage the economic impact rather than worry too much...

We've suspended, we've closed many entertainment outlets, we've closed and suspended centre-based tuition and enrichment classes. These are very painful for people running these businesses and I fully understand... But separately, even as we have been deliberating over these measures, we have also been closely updating our colleagues in the Ministry of Finance, who have been working on the second package. And that's why they have also taken all this into account in coming up with the second package of measures which Deputy Prime Minister Heng announced recently.

On the government measures to contain Covid-19

Q: Singapore has been lauded by many countries around the world as one of the best examples. However, there are people in Singapore itself who are asking, should we have stopped the Chinese from coming in earlier because the first 18 cases were from China? Should we have asked people to social distance a bit earlier? So on hindsight, if you knew then what you know now, would you have brought it forward?

Mr Wong: If you look at all of these measures, one of the challenges we've had is making decisions - consequential decisions - in a very short period of time, with not a lot of data and information. And we have very short reaction times. And these are important decisions that have impact on people's lives and livelihoods. So again with the benefit of hindsight, certainly you could say some things could have been done faster, perhaps some things were not even necessary. So we can always learn with the benefit of hindsight and with experience and improve decision-making. There's no doubt that things can be improved, but like I said, let's deal with it going forward, let's deal with the situation at hand.

Q: The local cases have gone up by a bit. Does it show that measures are not working properly here? Or is it inevitable?

Mr Wong: We have to give time for all that we have put in place to see effect because the very stringent set of safe distancing measures only came into effect last Friday. That's still too early. You need about two weeks to see any results, if at all. So all that we are seeing today is, in fact, the result of things that have already happened a week, two weeks ago, and it's not surprising that you see more local cases because we had a wave of imported cases and that's resulting in a corresponding increase in local cases.

On returning Singaporeans:

Q: Is there any way to house all returning Singaporeans in isolation?

Mr Wong: You can easily find empty buildings (elsewhere), but in Singapore, it's extremely hard. And that's why we've had to very quickly activate the hotels in order to provide accommodations but also take all the precautions, working with the hotel staff to make sure that staff are trained, they know what to do, proper infection control is taking place so that these facilities do not end up being clusters in themselves. We are working with more hotel operators to see how we can stand up, get ready, activate more facilities - because ideally, I would like to be able to accommodate returnees from anywhere in the world.

Q: How many Singaporeans do we expect to return?

Mr Wong: This is the challenge. We have 200,000 Singaporeans, at least, if not more - including PRs (permanent residents), (it) will be certainly more - overseas. Not all of them will come back at the same time... But if the infection and the virus spread to other countries, new epidemic centres may well emerge. It's not over yet. You know, there's still a long way more for the virus to continue to spread to other continents, to other parts of the world. And if that situation turns out to be uncontrollable in any part of the world outside of Singapore, and if there are Singaporeans there, you can be sure a large number would now decide to say look, maybe we should come back too.

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