Delivered in Parliament on 27 July 2021
Roadmap for reopening
On 24 June, the co-chairs of the Covid-19 Multi-ministry Task Force wrote an op-ed in the Straits Times to explain how the Government was drawing up a roadmap to transit to a new normal. The Ministers said that in the near future, Covid-19 cases could be dealt with very differently from now. For example, an infected person who is vaccinated could be allowed to recover from home.
Subsequently, on 7 July, Minister Wong revealed that gatherings in groups of eight might be allowed by the end of July, when at least half the population would be fully vaccinated.
Unfortunately, less than a week later, the KTV cluster emerged with eight new locally transmitted cases, which swelled rapidly to 148 cases just five days later. The KTV cluster and the Jurong Fishery Port outbreaks were the first major setback in the roadmap for reopening since its announcement.
When the KTV cluster first swelled to 120 cases on 16 July, Minister Gan said that instead of rolling back Covid-19 measures like before, MOH would continue to take a targeted approach to protect the unvaccinated. The vaccinated would be allowed to continue gathering in groups of five in mask-off settings while the unvaccinated could only gather in groups of two.
Yet, just a few days later the MTF decided to step back into Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) from 22 July to 18 August, following spikes in locally transmitted cases, including among the elderly. The targeted approach was abandoned, and F&B and gym operators had to face the same restrictions they had only just exited.
Essentially, just a year after we completed our Circuit Breaker in 2020, Singapore has snapped back twice into states of quasi-lockdown on almost all social and non-essential activities.
Minister Ong explained in yesterday’s Ministerial Statement that the KTV cluster alone would not have necessitated the rollback into P2HA, but when the JFP cluster started to grow, the MTF felt that it was necessary to take firmer measures to protect the elderly and unvaccinated.
I understand the MTF’s desire to err on the side of caution in this case. However, beyond this round of P2HA, Singaporeans and businesses need more clarity on how the roadmap for reopening is going to be implemented. After 18 August, if more large clusters break out, will we need to brace ourselves for more rolling lockdowns?
Many businesses, especially in the F&B, arts and sports sectors, are suffering not only because of SMMs, but also because of the frequent changes in policies, which can actually hurt them even more. The lack of certainty makes it difficult for business owners to decide if they should stay the course or pivot to a more pandemic-resilient line of business.
Individual workers, too, need to decide whether or not to continue hoping for more Covid-19 support grants or pivot their careers to a more stable line of work, if such options are available.
Not only are the policies sometimes changing overnight, but some are painfully complicated. When the restrictions on the now-defunct P3HA from 19 July to 8 Aug were announced, some remarked that one needed a PhD to understand the dining-in rules. Not only was there differentiation between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, children and adults, same family or different household, but there was also differentiation between the types of vaccines received — whether Sinovac or mRNA — and the number of doses that counts as “fully vaccinated”.
Restaurant staff would find it challenging to enforce these rules with their patrons, some of whom may not have the TraceTogether app installed. Some fast-food outlets initially decided to simply adopt the strictest interpretation of the rules for all patrons. This benefits neither the industry nor its customers.
No one would disagree with a calibrated approach to SMMs. However, the practicality of such measures was not evident in the recent attempt. I hope the MTF will take on board the lessons learned from the experience when formulating the rules as we look forward to some reopening on 19 August and beyond.
Covid-19 Risk Index
Next, I would like to speak on how information on our battle with Covid-19 is presented. The daily infection numbers have become a key focus for many people. MOH highlights these numbers in their daily updates and the media splashes it on their headlines. Singaporeans too mention these numbers in our conversations with each other. Because of this, many wondered why a new infection count of 56 locally transmitted cases on 14 July did not require a lockdown when previously a much lower count of 24 infections on 14 May triggered a state of heightened alert for one month.
Experts will tell us that new case counts alone are not an accurate gauge of whether things are going well in our fight against Covid-19. There are many other factors that need to be taken into account when deciding the level of risk we are facing. Yet most laymen are not capable of synthesising so much information at one go.
Earlier this month, I asked if MOH could publish a Risk Index in its daily virus update that can give the public a more holistic view of the risk we face. This index could weigh various factors including the vaccination rate, hospitalisation rate, positivity rate of testing, contact tracing efficiency, new infections per 100,000 people and the infection risk in other countries, among others. This will require some calculations and intelligent assumptions by experts to produce a single daily number that the public can more easily digest. It should be a leading indicator, rather than a lagging one.
I’m not suggesting that the MTF should be bound by this Risk Index when deciding on policies. However, this Index can serve as a guide to both policymakers and the public to understand the current risk levels and adapt accordingly.
An objective, science-based Covid-19 Risk Index will help assure the public that SMMs imposed by the government are appropriate for the given risk levels. This would secure more buy-in from the public and result in greater voluntary compliance with SMMs.
Voluntary compliance is key in our battle against the virus, as demonstrated by the KTV cluster outbreak, which was most likely caused by a wilful disregard of social distancing regulations. No amount of rules and fines will stop people from engaging in risky activities behind closed doors if they aren’t convinced of the risks.
There are not many countries around the world that have come up with a Covid-19 Risk Index which is both accurate and widely understood by the public. Singapore has an opportunity to lead the way in this respect. I hope the Government can give consideration to this proposal.
I shall now move on to a related factor in our roadmap for reopening, which is vaccinations. During my estate walkabouts and house visits, I make it a point to ask residents, especially the elderly, if they have gotten their vaccinations, and encourage those who haven’t, to do so soon for their own protection. Thankfully, most residents assure me that they have gotten their jabs.
However, I find vaccine hesitancy among a small minority of the population rather worrying. Based on the reasons they articulate, it appears that a lot of their understanding about vaccinations is fuelled by confusing information they receive from friends through private messaging platforms. I myself receive a daily stream of such messages from friends and residents.
The situation is more complicated than just scientific arguments for or against vaccinations. I have heard accusations of vaccine manufacturers colluding with governments to promote their vaccines; that the vaccines have not been fully approved and are therefore merely experimental; or that Singapore is biased towards or against vaccines from some countries. These have been circulating since the end of last year and have steadily increased in virulence and virality in the last few months.
Instead of politicians fronting the public education campaign for vaccinations, more can be done to amplify the voice of independent medical experts to explain the facts and allay the public’s fears. Other experts in business, international relations and culture also have a role to play in addressing misinformation about vaccines.
This must be done soon, before the window of opportunity to change minds closes. Once news about large Covid clusters fades from the headlines, the impetus to get vaccinated will decrease.
Covid-19 Support Measures
I have some questions about the latest Covid-19 Support Measures which I hope the Finance Minister can address.
First, I am glad the Minister has introduced a new Market and Hawker Centre Relief Fund, which provides a one-off cash assistance of $500 per stallholder. However I note this is provided only to stallholders in government hawker centres and markets. Can similar relief be extended to stallholders in neighbourhood food centres which are run by private food service management companies like Koufu and Kopitiam?
Second, I also note that the Minister has extended the Covid-19 Recovery Grant (Temporary) scheme’s income-loss coverage period to end-August. However, I would like to point out some implementation anomalies from the previous rounds of this grant. Is the Minister aware of instances where companies place their Singaporean workers on no-pay leave during Heightened Alert periods while continuing to employ their foreign workers at full pay?
I have a resident who works as a dishwasher and was asked to go on no-pay leave whereas his foreign worker colleagues weren’t. Apparently his employer assumed that Singaporeans could benefit from the CRG, while the foreigners could not. Unfortunately, this Singaporean applied for but was denied the CRG, so he ended up worse off than his foreign colleagues. I will be making an appeal on his behalf directly to MSF. I hope the Finance Ministry can consider ways to prevent companies from employing this form of arbitrage to reap the best of both worlds, and in the process disadvantage Singaporean workers.
In summary, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope to see greater detail on the Government’s roadmap for reopening. The public needs a more easily understood Covid-19 Risk Index. And we should make a strong push to overcome vaccine hesitancy in order to reduce the risk of serious Covid-19 infections.