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VIRUS OUTBREAK

No going to Dorscon Red, but Covid-19 outbreak could last a year or longer: PM Lee

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In a televised national address on Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore faces a "serious situation" and there is a need to plan for a possible spike in Covid-19 cases.

Singapore

THE Covid-19 situation in Singapore remains "under control" and there are no plans to raise the disease outbreak response level alert to red, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a televised national address on Thursday.

The government is also not going to lock down the city the way China, South Korea and Italy have already done, he said in remarks broadcast in English, Chinese and Malay.

While Singapore has already imposed some travel restrictions, there is a need to tighten up further temporarily, although he reiterated the point that it is not possible for the country to completely shut itself off from the rest of the world.

Mr Lee warned that the coronavirus outbreak - which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared as a pandemic on Wednesday - "will continue for some time - a year, and maybe longer".

He stressed that Singapore faces a "serious situation" and there is a need to plan for a possible spike in Covid-19 cases.

"We expect more imported cases and therefore new clusters and new waves of infection, this time coming from many countries rather than one or two," said Mr Lee in what was his second televised speech on the coronavirus situation.

The first was on Feb 8, a day after Singapore raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) alert to Orange, the second-highest level.

Singapore's Health Ministry reported nine new confirmed cases on Thursday, taking the total here to 187. Of these, nine are in critical condition and in the intensive care unit (ICU). A total of 96 people have fully recovered and been discharged from hospital, and there have been no deaths so far.

Mr Lee said that if Singapore experiences very large numbers of infections at some point, it would no longer be possible to hospitalise and isolate every single case.

"The sensible thing will be to hospitalise only the more serious cases, and encourage those with mild symptoms to see their family GP (general practitioner), rest at home and isolate themselves," he said.

"This way, we focus resources on the seriously ill, speed up our response time, and hopefully, minimise the number of fatalities."

Even as hospitals free up their ICU spaces and facilities to meet any surge in cases, Mr Lee gave the assurance that any Singaporean who requires urgent medical care - be it for Covid-19 or other illnesses - would be taken care of.

But should there be a spike, there will also be a need for more social distancing measures - temporary "brakes" such as suspending school, staggering work hours and compulsory telecommuting.

"The extra brakes will slow down transmission of the virus, prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed, and help bring the numbers back down. After the situation improves, we can ease off and go back to the baseline precautions," said the prime minister.

Even as Singapore plans ahead, one major concern of the government is the impact on the economy, which Mr Lee said is taking a "big hit" due to the virus.

While the S$4 billion Support and Stabilisation Package announced at last month's Budget would help businesses, workers and households tide over the immediate period, Mr Lee said "we knew we might have to do more" as the situation unfolded.

The government is working on a second package of measures and this will 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," he said.

"We will give those who are retrenched and unemployed, as well as their families, an extra helping hand to see through this difficult period."

With Covid-19 set to stay for a long time, Mr Lee said there are things that everyone must get used to, such as practising good hygiene, adopting new social norms, discouraging large gatherings and maintaining some physical distance from one another.

On Thursday, it was announced that all mosques in Singapore would be shut from March 13 to 17 for cleaning after two Singaporeans who attended a large religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur tested positive for Covid-19.

The Catholic Church, which had earlier said that masses in Singapore would resume this weekend, confirmed that masses would remain suspended indefinitely.

"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.

He called on Singaporeans to be understanding should there be a need to shorten religious services during the outbreak, or to reduce the attendance at such gatherings.

Mr Lee said he was sharing all these plans with the public to reassure them that the government is on top of things and thinking ahead. He added that Singapore's response to Covid-19 has received international accolades, including from the WHO.

"We will remain in this high-risk state for some time to come. But if we keep up our guard and take practical precautions to protect ourselves and our families, we will be able to keep our economy going, and carry on with our daily lives. In such a crisis, everyone has a part to play," he said.