Update on current situation
I last spoke to you on COVID-19 three weeks ago.
Since then, the number of new cases daily has begun to rise. We used to see fewer than 10 new cases a day. But in the last two weeks, despite our best efforts, we have routinely had more than 50 new cases daily.
Initially, many of the new cases were imported from overseas, mostly returning Singaporeans. Then last week, we began to have more local cases. Furthermore, despite our good contact tracing, for nearly half of these cases, we do not know where or from whom the person caught the virus. This suggests that there are more people out there who are infected, but who have not been identified. And they may be passing the virus unknowingly to others.
In the last few days, we have also discovered several clusters at foreign worker dormitories, and one at a nursing home. These are very worrying, because large numbers of people live together in dormitories and nursing homes. A single case can quickly lead to a large cluster. Furthermore, nursing home patients are mostly old and frail, and very vulnerable to the virus.
Applying a circuit breaker
As the situation developed over the past weeks, we have tightened our safe-distancing measures progressively. Singaporeans have responded well, calmly and responsibly, and made adjustments in their daily lives. By working together, we have kept the outbreak under control.
But looking at the trend, I am worried that unless we take further steps, things will gradually get worse, or another big cluster may push things over the edge. I discussed this with the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF). We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections. We will therefore impose significantly stricter measures. This is like a circuit breaker.
It will help reduce the risk of a big outbreak occurring. And it should also help to gradually bring our numbers down. This in turn will then allow us to relax some of the measures. This circuit breaker will apply for one month, in the first instance. The Task Force is holding a Press Conference immediately after I finish speaking to you, to explain the details. But let me give you the key points.
First, we will close most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors. Food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and key banking services will remain open. They are essential services. We also should not disrupt economic sectors that are strategic, or form part of a global supply chain. People working in these industries can continue to go to work, with safe-distancing measures in place. But most other work premises must close. If the person can work from home, he should do so. But others will not be able to, including foreign workers on construction sites and in shipyards. These workers live in dormitories, and we will make arrangements to look after them. The closure of work places will take effect from next Tuesday. This will ensure that most of our workforce stays at home and limits their physical interaction to as few people as possible.
Second, we will also move to full home-based learning in our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs). We started with one day of home-based learning this week. This has gone smoothly, with teething issues being resolved. Ministry of Education (MOE) will work with the schools to implement full home-based learning starting next Wednesday. All preschool and student care centres will also be closed, but will provide limited services for children of parents who have to continue working and are unable to make alternative care arrangements.
Third, we will tighten restrictions on movements and gatherings of people. It boils down to three things. First, stay at home, as much as possible. Second, avoid socialising with others beyond your own household. Gatherings should be confined to your household. Avoid visiting even your extended families who are not staying with you, especially if they are elderly or vulnerable. Third, go out only to do essential things. For work, if you are in essential services or key economic sectors. To buy food at markets, or to take out from restaurants and hawker centres. Or to exercise in the neighbourhood park, keeping a safe distance from others.
The spirit of these measures is to get all of us to minimise physical contact. If we do not go out, if we avoid contact with others, then the virus will not be able to spread. It is as simple as that.
I know this is very hard to do. Very hard to do as a practical matter, in places like hawker centres and wet markets, it is difficult to practise safe-distancing, especially on the weekends when it is crowded. It will help if we all adjust our habits. For example, do our marketing on weekdays instead of weekends to avoid the crowd. We will also deploy more Safe-Distancing Ambassadors to encourage people not to crowd together, so please cooperate with them
Safe distancing is also hard for a psychological and emotional reason: it goes very much against our human instincts. It is in our nature to want to socialise, to be close to those we are talking to, to take comfort in the warmth and company of friends and family. I fully understand this. But I hope you will also understand why we all have to take social distancing extremely seriously in this period. This is the only effective way to slow the transmission of the virus, so that we gradually bring our numbers down. It is also the best way to keep our families safe, and particularly to protect our seniors from getting ill. So please bear with the painful adjustments that we have make. Each and every one of us can, and must do our part, to keep everyone in Singapore safe from COVID-19.
I decided to speak to you directly today to explain why we need to make this major move now.
But also to reassure you that things will be alright. Essential services will continue running so that all of us can cope with this new situation, as we batten down to fight this virus. We have enough food supplies to last us through this period and beyond. You can still shop at the supermarket or wet market. And you need not rush to stock up for weeks at a time. You can still buy food from your favourite hawker centres or coffee shop. Though you will have to take out and eat at home with your own family. Rather than hang out and eat outside with your friends.
I know these measures will impact our workers and businesses severely. This is already a very difficult time for them. We will help them come through this. On Monday in Parliament, DPM Heng Swee Keat will announce additional support for households and businesses, over and above what was provided in the two earlier Budgets. We will also legislate to require landlords to pass on property tax rebates fully to their tenants. We will also pass new temporary legislation to let businesses and individuals defer certain contractual obligations for a period, such as paying rent, repaying loans, or completing work.
Besides implementing this circuit breaker, we also are rethinking our advice on face masks.
Up to now, the Government has advised the general public that you only need to wear a mask if you are not feeling well, and this is to protect others from your germs. This was based on scientific advice and guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). We also did not have community spread in Singapore then, so it was very unlikely for you to run into anyone with COVID-19 on the street, much less be infected by them. Nevertheless, the Government gave each household four surgical masks, to use in case you got sick, and to give people peace of mind.
Now, the situation is changing. We now think there are some cases out there in the community going undetected, though probably still not that many. We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms, and yet still pass on the virus to others. This is why the World Health Organization is reviewing the issue of face masks, and so is the US Communicable Disease Centre (CDC).
Therefore, we will no longer discourage people from wearing masks . Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it. This is so that you keep your droplets to yourself - when you sneeze or speak or cough. It can also protect yourself a little better, especially if you are elderly, or vulnerable because of pre-existing health conditions.
We still want to conserve surgical masks for the people who really need them – healthcare workers in clinics and hospitals. For everyone else, in a community setting, alternatives like reusable masks will give some added protection. So from this Sunday, the Government will distribute reusable masks to all households. Meanwhile, many community groups have been making and distributing reusable masks for the elderly and vulnerable. I applaud these efforts. They show our community spirit and mutual care.
But remember, mask or no mask, you still need to wash your hands, and keep a safe distance away from other people.
The next few weeks will be pivotal. Even after these stepped-up measures, the number of cases will quite likely still go up in the next few days. They can be cases who have already been infected earlier. Except they have not yet shown symptoms, or not yet gone to see their doctor. But if we keep our efforts up, within a few weeks we should be able to bring the numbers under control, bring the numbers down, and get into a more sustainable position.
We will keep on doing our utmost to protect every Singaporean from COVID-19. Many people have been working tirelessly for the past two months. Our nurses and doctors, our contact tracers and healthcare staff. We thank them all for their efforts and sacrifices. Now we are all enlisted to join them on the frontline.
It will be a long fight. But if any country can see this through, it is Singapore. We have the resources. We have the determination. We are united. By helping one another through this, we will prevail, and emerge stronger.