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Covid-19 outbreak will continue for some time - a year, and maybe longer, says PM Lee

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PM Lee said if Singaporeans keep up their guard and take practical precautions to protect themselves and their families, the country will be able to keep its economy going and people will be able to carry on with their daily lives.

[SINGAPORE] The Covid-19 outbreak will continue for some time - a year, and maybe longer - said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his second national address on the situation on Thursday (March 12).

But if Singaporeans keep up their guard and take practical precautions to protect themselves and their families, the country will be able to keep its economy going and people will be able to carry on with their daily lives, he said in a video address telecast over his social media platforms.

PM Lee also emphasised that the disease outbreak response level will not be stepped up to red, the highest level. It is currently at orange.

"We are not locking down our city like the Chinese, South Koreans or Italians have done. What we are doing now is to plan ahead for some of these more stringent measures, try them out, and prepare Singaporeans for when we actually need to implement them," he said.

In his statement on the current situation - which he delivered in English, Chinese and Malay - PM Lee laid out the medical, economic and psychological impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

On the medical front, he noted that new cases continue to be seen in Singapore. Most have either travelled overseas or can be traced to imported cases. "Each time we have been able to isolate them, do contact tracing, and quarantine the close contacts. So our numbers have not blown up. But neither have we been able to eradicate the virus, despite our best efforts."

At the same time, new cases are emerging all over the world - in Europe, America and the Middle East - and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the situation a pandemic.

This means that many countries will see full blown outbreaks, with sustained community transmission, PM Lee said, adding that the WHO has attributed the virus' rapid spread to "alarming levels of inaction" by many countries.

And although Singapore has all along taken the outbreak with the "utmost seriousness", it expects more imported cases.

"We will have to tighten up further temporarily, though we cannot completely shut ourselves off from the world," he said.

First, there are baseline things that all Singaporeans must now do. These include practising good personal hygiene, adopting new social norms and discouraging large gatherings, and generally, maintaining some physical distance from one another.

He noted that two of Singapore's large clusters happened in church groups, and that several Singaporeans who attended a big international religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur recently have caught the virus.

"The issue is of course not religion itself, but that the virus can spread quickly to many people in crowded settings, like religious gatherings and services," he said, adding: "I hope Singaporeans understand that during this period we may need to shorten religious services, or reduce our attendance at such gatherings. Please work with your religious leaders to make these practical adjustments."

Second, Singapore must plan for a possible spike in Covid-19 cases.

With very large numbers, Singapore will not be able to hospitalise and isolate every case as it currently does. And 80 per cent of patients experience only mild symptoms, PM Lee said.

"So with larger numbers, the sensible thing will be to hospitalise only the more serious cases, and encourage those with mild symptoms to see their family GP and rest at home - isolate themselves. This way, we focus resources on the seriously ill, speed up our response time, and hopefully, minimise the number of fatalities."

In the meantime, Singapore is freeing up intensive care unit and hospital beds and facilities, to create additional capacity to meet any surge. "But rest assured, any Singaporean who needs urgent medical care, whether for Covid-19 or other illnesses, will be taken care of."

If there is a spike in cases, Singapore will also implement temporary additional social distancing measures, such as suspending school, staggering work hours, or compulsory telecommuting, he said.

On the economic front, the Government is working on a second package of measures to help companies with their costs and cash-flow, to keep them afloat through the storm.

"We will help our workers keep their jobs, and retrain during their downtime, so that when things return to normal, our workers will be the first out of the gate, and immediately productive. And we will give those who are retrenched and unemployed, as well as their families, an extra helping hand to see through this difficult period."

The psychological aspect of this fight is also critical, PM Lee said.

Frontline staff - including healthcare workers, immigration officers, civil servants, public transport workers, taxi drivers, and cleaning staff - are working extremely hard to keep Singapore going.

"Singaporeans are cheering them on," he said, adding that the Government, for its part, has been open and transparent with its plans.

"When we made direct appeals to Singaporeans, for example, only wear face masks when unwell; or not to worry about our supermarkets running out of food or household items, people accepted our reassurances, and behaviour changed. I am grateful that most Singaporeans are responding calmly and responsibly. Thank you for your trust and support."

He noted that Singapore's response has received international accolades, and underlying this is its people's social and psychological resilience.

"What makes Singapore different from other countries is that we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind. This is SG United, we are SG United."

He added: "In such a crisis, everyone has a part to play. I hope you will work with me and colleagues to keep our families safe, keep Singapore secure, and move forward together."

In his first national address, delivered on Feb 8, PM Lee had said that the outbreak was a test of Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience.

He also said the country may have to reconsider its strategy if the virus became widespread, as it would be futile to trace every contact and hospitals could be overwhelmed if every suspect case was hospitalised and isolated.

He also encouraged Singaporeans to stay united and resolute, taking sensible precautions, helping one another, staying calm, and carrying on with their lives.

THE STRAITS TIMES