S'poreans need to take advice not to travel very seriously, must take responsibility for their actions: Lawrence Wong

Travellers arrive at Changi Airport on March 16, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
(From left) National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo at the multi-ministry task force's press conference on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans need to take the advice not to travel very seriously, but if they still insist on doing so, they must take responsibility for their actions, said the authorities on Tuesday (March 17).

"We have already put out the advisory to defer non-essential travel, and we would call on everyone to comply with this advisory and defer your travel plans," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the coronavirus.

"It puts everyone at risk, you put yourself at risk, and you put your family members and the people around you at risk," he said at a press conference, in his most strongly-worded statements on the virus to date.

"We would ask Singaporeans and residents to really think through before you make any travel plans... Yes we're not stopping people from travelling, we're not locking our borders and stopping people from travelling, but please, we encourage and urge people to defer all travel at this particular juncture."

He pointed out that the majority of imported cases - which form the bulk of recent Covid-19 cases - are Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders who had returned from overseas.

People who insist on proceeding with non-essential travel will have to take their own leave, should they need to comply with a stay-home notice for 14 days after returning.

"It only takes one or two cases to go out of the containment in order for this to spread very widely," he stressed.

Since Sunday (March 15), 37 out of 54 coronavirus cases in Singapore were imported cases. Over the past week, there have been 52 imported coronavirus cases in Singapore out of 83.

On Monday, Malaysia announced that its citizens would not be allowed to travel overseas from Wednesday to March 31 as part of measures to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

Those returning from abroad will have to undergo a health examination and self-quarantine for 14 days.

Commuters arriving in Singapore from Malaysia, near the Woodlands Train Checkpoint on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

This sparked off long queues in supermarkets in Singapore, although Singapore's leaders noted that people are not buying more than what they need.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the flow of goods and cargo between Singapore and Malaysia, including food supplies, will continue.

This was based on a conversation he had with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier that day.

"I understand their need to implement these measures urgently," he said.

While recognising that it would cause inconvenience and disruption, their measures will help to control transmission of virus not just within Malaysia, but also across the border, he said.

About 415,000 people, many of them Malaysians working in Singapore, use the land checkpoints between the two countries daily.

The Government has given assurances that all Malaysian workers who choose to remain in Singapore will have a place to stay, and that it is providing financial help to employers.

It is estimated that 100,000 Malaysians working here have no living arrangements in Singapore. They include some 1,000 nurses and other healthcare workers who make the daily commute from across the causeway to their workplaces here.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Tuesday that it is working with tripartite partners to help affected companies find suitable accommodation for their Malaysian workers.

There are a number of housing options: workers can also be encouraged to stay with relatives, or if this is not feasible, employers can consider hotels and dormitories.

A third option is rental, with the authorities rolling out a plan to help with costs, to the tune of $50 per worker per night for 14 nights. More details will be announced later.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who is also a member of the task force, noted that employers have mostly been able to find accommodation on their own.

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Several hundred have had difficulty doing so, and the authorities can help them, she said.

"It may take a little bit of time because you do need to match them. The employers as well as their workers have certain preferences, and they may also be looking at accommodation at different price points," she said.

"In the few short hours we've had to work on this, we've actually been able to match more than 10,000 (workers). So I'm confident by the end of the day, any one of the affected workers that need to stay in Singapore would be able to find suitable accommodation."

As of Tuesday, Singapore had 266 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with no deaths so far.

But Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, co-chair of the task force, reiterated that fatalities are almost inevitable.

The Covid-19 statistical mortality rate is 2 to 3 per cent, and patients in the intensive care unit were all in very critical condition, he said.

"We are monitoring the patients and healthcare workers are doing all they can so that they can recover as soon as possible.

"But at some point in time we do expect to see a fatality in Singapore as well," he said.

Mr Wong said a lock down in Singapore could not be ruled out, although this was not a current consideration.

"We have always said that we need to consider a whole range of measures and not rule anything out.

"We could potentially consider a major circuit breaker that doesn't entail a lock down, but entails school closures, workplaces, on a temporary basis, for two to three weeks just like Malaysia, but doesn't mean a lockdown, just suspension of activities."

He added: "That's a whole range we have in our toolkit. We will adjust our measures and do them well.

"If we are vigilant, and implement them effectively, we won't have to lock down our city."

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