Coronavirus pandemic

Phased reopening to protect lives, livelihoods: Minister

But S'poreans have to get used to new normal of living with restrictions: Lawrence Wong

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

A phased approach to reopening Singapore will help protect both lives and livelihoods, but Singaporeans must get used to the "new normal" of living with restrictions, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, said in a Money FM 89.3 radio interview yesterday that the process of reopening is a "very tricky" one - as seen from the experience of countries such as South Korea, which saw a second wave of infections after emerging from lockdown.

"Reopening means there will be an increase in activities and human contact, and more opportunities for the virus to spread. That is why we decided to implement a phased approach and not open the floodgates all at once.

"So please, please do not go out and have a big party."

Mr Wong had said last week that phase two of Singapore's post-circuit breaker reopening could start before the end of this month, if infection rates remain low and stable.

About 75 per cent of the economy will resume operations in phase one, which began yesterday. Shops will stay closed during this phase, and there will be no dining in at restaurants and other food outlets.

Speaking to Money FM host Elliot Danker, Mr Wong said the Government is prioritising both lives and livelihoods by reopening the economy gradually, while ensuring that it has the capabilities to test and contact-trace on a large scale.

"As cases emerge, we make sure we have the ability to quickly detect and isolate these cases and prevent large clusters from forming."

This does not necessarily mean keeping community infection numbers to single digits, he said, but, rather, having the ability to control and ring-fence any detected cases.

The key strategy is to have aggressive testing and contact tracing. We have now learnt that the viral spread occurs quite early in the course of infection, even before symptoms develop.

That is why we have taken the time during the circuit breaker to do two things. First, we have beefed up our contact tracing teams and we are enhancing their capabilities through the use of technology, like the TraceTogether app. Second, we have ramped up our testing capacity.

NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT MINISTER LAWRENCE WONG, on Singapore's strategy to detect unlinked Covid-19 cases.

Both our economies are highly connected and interdependent. So, it is in both our interests to continue working together, not only on the public health aspect for which we already have a joint working group where officials discuss cooperative measures, but also in steering both our economies to recovery.

So, we would certainly want to see more resumption of trade and travel.

MR WONG, on Singapore-Malaysia relations.

This is not about whether it is younger ministers or older ministers. We are all in this together, and from the Government's point of view, we have one task force, and the Government is behind the task force. This is a whole-of-government machinery at work.

Outside of the task force, we work together as a team. Where there is a need, we consult (others) and discuss very difficult decisions. In due course, we decide as a Government whether or not to proceed with a decision, and when we do, it is a collective decision and has the full backing of everyone in the Cabinet. That is how we do it.

MR WONG, on the 4G leadership's role in Covid-19 decision-making.

"We understand that this phased approach will have an impact on businesses, that is why in the recent Budget, we provided more support for businesses that cannot reopen immediately," he said.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a further $33 billion in Covid-19 aid under the Fortitude Budget. Together with three earlier rescue packages - the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets - the Government's support totals $92.9 billion, or close to 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product.

The Fortitude Budget includes enhancements to the Jobs Support Scheme, which subsidises wages paid by companies to local workers, as well as more rental relief for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr Wong cautioned that Singaporeans should not expect to return to their pre-Covid-19 way of life as there will still be restrictions in place, such as safe distancing and the wearing of masks.

"We should think of this as a new normal - a state which we can expect to remain until a vaccine or treatment is developed," he said.

He added that even if a vaccine is developed, it is expected to take more than a year and may not provide long-term immunity against Covid-19.

"We need to be prepared mentally for this to be a long fight."

While there is much debate on the relative merits of various countries' approaches to tackling the virus, the Government's focus, he said, remains on the task at hand - to control the spread of the virus and ensure that Singapore's healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

Thanking everyone for rallying together during the crisis, he said: "We have reached the end of the circuit breaker, and this is indeed a milestone. I want to thank everyone for your sacrifices in keeping our fellow citizens safe and bringing community infections down significantly."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2020, with the headline 'Phased reopening to protect lives, livelihoods: Minister'. Subscribe