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Closure of schools and workplaces possible if number of Covid-19 cases continues rising: Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE has reached a critical phase in its fight against the novel coronavirus, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Wednesday, as he signalled the possibility of introducing more drastic measures that include the closure of schools and some workplaces if the number of infected cases continues to rise.

"We have to do what is necessary from the public-health point of view first, save lives, slow down the virus and then thereafter, do our best to manage the economic consequences,"  Mr Wong, who is also co-chair of a multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the virus, said in Parliament.

In an impassioned speech, he recounted how public officials and many other "unsung heroes" - Singaporeans working in essential services - have been working round the clock in fighting the virus.

"Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation," he said in a shaky voice overwhelmed by emotion before he paused.

He said it has been more than two months since the task force's work against the Covid-19 pandemic began.

"It almost seems like a lifetime ago, but in fact, we are only at the beginning of a very long fight. This will continue for many more months till the end of the year and perhaps even beyond."  

He urged Singaporeans to take the latest set of measures very seriously as the fight against the virus cannot be done by frontline workers or government agencies alone.

On Tuesday, he and his task force co-chair Gan Kim Yong, who is also Health Minister, announced a series of measures to close all bars, clubs, cinemas and tuition centres from Friday. All religious services will be suspended and events and mass gatherings cancelled or deferred. Other public spaces like retail malls and food-and-beverage operators are allowed to operate with restrictions.

Mr Wong said these measures, along with tighter border controls, come as Singapore now faces a second and bigger wave of imported cases from the rest of the world, particularly the United States and Europe. The initial wave of imported cases came from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first emerged in late December.

He said the government's key objective is to focus its resources on the large numbers of Singaporeans returning from overseas, which includes isolating these returnees.

At the moment, 2,500 people who are considered close contacts of confirmed cases have been issued quarantine orders; 38,000 people have been placed on the 14-day Stay-Home Notice, he said.

These numbers will rise with the growing number of returnees, he added.

He said while Singapore has an excellent detection system to pick up Covid-19 cases, citing a Harvard study that called Singapore's contact tracing system the "gold standard", the detection rate is not "100 per cent".

"No system can be 100 per cent, and that means that the virus continues to circulate in our population, and there are still cases out there in the community which will pop up. And that is our greater concern," Mr Wong said.

He said the authorities are monitoring the locally transmitted cases, and that the unlinked ones are especially of concern.

"We are seeing more of such cases in recent days, and that's why we need to put in place a whole range of additional public-health measures to slow down the spread of the virus within Singapore itself."