S’pore to set up public health centre, forward planning team to prepare for future pandemics: DPM Wong

The move comes after the release of a White Paper detailing how Singapore can build on its successes during Covid-19 and avoid the errors committed in future pandemics. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE – Singapore will set up a dedicated centre for public health to consolidate its disease control and pandemic management capabilities, as it draws lessons from its battle with Covid-19 to be better prepared for the next major crisis.

It will also form a dedicated forward planning team to prepare to fight through the fog of future pandemics in the best way possible, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament on Monday.

The centre for public health will enable Singapore to grow its public health capabilities over time, while the forward planning team will help the nation anticipate and monitor risks, develop the next course of action and pivot more effectively as the situation evolves, he said.

This follows the March 8 release of a 92-page White Paper on Singapore’s response to the pandemic, which had looked at how the country can build on its successes and avoid the errors it committed, when it deals with future pandemics.

“Today, we have fully transitioned to living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease. The virus is still among us, and no one can tell how it will continue to evolve,” Mr Wong said at the debate on Singapore’s response to Covid-19.

“But for now, the evolution (of the virus) seems to be plodding, with minor tweaks to its genetic code rather than major changes that require another Greek-letter name. So, it is timely therefore to take stock of our response, so we can start preparing for the next battle, whenever it comes.”

Singapore budgeted around $100 billion to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, and eventually spent $72.3 billion in Financial Year 2020 and FY2021 because it had been prudent and, at the same time, it avoided some of the worst-case scenarios it had prepared for, he added.

The nature of dealing with a crisis is that Singapore will always be faced with incomplete information, and there will never be a “perfect response” in a crisis that is as complex, unpredictable and fast moving as Covid-19, said Mr Wong.

“Every new pathogen we meet will involve a degree of dealing with the unknown, and it would be prohibitively expensive to cater for a wide range of ‘worst cases’,” he pointed out. “We have to judge what is the best way forward, based on what we know, and respond quickly, rather than wait for all the facts to come in, by which time it might be too late to act.” 

Mr Wong shared the pandemic management plans as he pointed to three broad lessons gleaned from the Covid-19 pandemic: on fortifying the public health system, enhancing forward planning capabilities and strengthening Singapore’s resilience as a nation.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung will elaborate on the plans for the dedicated centre for public health, similar to what many other countries have done in setting up centres for disease control, Mr Wong said.

Singapore already has some of these public health capabilities, especially in the area of communicable disease control and management, as that had been beefed up after Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, hit in 2003.

However, these currently reside in various parts of the Republic’s healthcare system, for example in the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, the National Public Health Laboratory, and within the Ministry of Health itself, Mr Wong noted.

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Unlike the usual sessions, a contingent of front-liners, including not just doctors and nurses but educators, social service professionals, transport workers, supermarket managers, safe distancing ambassadors, joined politicians in Parliament on Monday. They were given a standing ovation that lasted almost half a minute to honour their hard work and sacrifices.

While Sars presented a pathogen that was highly severe with low risk of spread, Covid-19 has one that is moderately severe with high risk of spread.

Mr Wong said that in the future, the more dangerous scenario would be one where Singapore faces a pathogen that has both high mortality and high contagion risks. “We will need to broaden the range of baseline scenarios for pandemic planning, and review the resources we need to respond to these different scenarios. Being prepared and making investments early can yield immense dividends, especially during a crisis,” he said.

Singapore will have to strike the right balance to make good use of the country’s limited resources, said Mr Wong.

“This may involve planning for contingencies that can be pivoted “just in time” to support our pandemic response, so we don’t have to build layers of redundancies that may remain underused outside of a crisis but cost us a disproportionate amount of resources to maintain,” he added.

The country does not have to front-load all of the investments to cater for all contingencies. But it must create a dynamic, forward-oriented organisation and process whose main mission is to anticipate and monitor risks, and to keep buying insurance where needed, he said.

“So, as the crisis develops, we can continue to buy more insurance and options for the future.”

He also said Covid-19 has underscored the importance of building up additional redundancies and buffers that Singapore can fall back on during a crisis. Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong will elaborate on these, including the country’s stockpiling strategies.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought out the best in Singaporeans, individually and collectively, Mr Wong stressed.

“We stood firmly together, and left no one behind. That is a mark of our growing maturity and resilience, as a people and as a nation,” he said.

“Let’s always remember the most important lesson of Covid-19: That we are stronger when we stand and work together. So, let us resolve to stay united so that whatever the challenges ahead, we can overcome them as one people and one Singapore.”  

In Parliament on Monday, 22 ministers and MPs, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), spoke during the debate on Singapore’s response to Covid-19.

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