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PM Lee says Govt must learn from errors of Covid-19 response but right decisions not always possible ‘in fog of war’

SINGAPORE — With hindsight, the Government would have recommended the wearing of face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Sept 2), as he admitted shortcomings in Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that with better information, Singapore would have acted “more aggressively” and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories, beyond the precautions that it thought was adequate at the time.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that with better information, Singapore would have acted “more aggressively” and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories, beyond the precautions that it thought was adequate at the time.

Singapore

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  • PM Lee acknowledged the response to Covid-19 had shortcomings
  • This included not acting earlier on foreign worker dormitories
  • But the Government had to make prompt decisions “in the fog of war”, he said

 

SINGAPORE — With hindsight, the Government would have recommended the wearing of face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Sept 2), as he admitted shortcomings in Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We must learn from these errors and do better the next time,” he said. “But in the fog of war, it’s not possible always to make the perfect decisions.”

PM Lee was speaking in Parliament on the third day of the debate on the President’s Address. His speech was broadcast live on CNA and his Facebook page.

He stressed that no country has been perfect in its pandemic response and noted that even countries that have fared better, such as South Korea and New Zealand, are facing a resurgence of cases as they open up again.

PM Lee noted that Singapore has done well in keeping fatality rates low, bringing down community infections and having fewer than 100 patients remaining in hospital. 

But the Government would have handled some situations differently when the pandemic struck, he said, if it had the scientific data and experience it does now. 

“I wish we had known earlier that people with Covid-19 were infectious even when they were asymptomatic.” 

If it had known that, the Government would have quarantined all Singaporeans who arrived from abroad earlier in March and tested them before releasing them from isolation instead of assuming that not having symptoms meant they were free from infection.

The Government would also have recommended everyone to wear face masks sooner, Mr Lee added, rather than changing tack and distributing masks only when scientific advice shifted and the World Health Organization recognised asymptomatic transmission was a serious problem.

Until April, government leaders had appealed to citizens to wear masks only when ill, as shoppers panicked and rushed to stores to snap up surgical masks.

And with better information, Singapore would also have acted “more aggressively” and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories, beyond the precautions that it thought was adequate at the time.

“All this is wisdom from fact,” Mr Lee said. But while the situation was unclear, the Government had to make decisions quickly.

“The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as new information emerges and as the situation changes.”

Even now, Mr Lee noted, because of the scale and complexity of the government operations, there have inevitably been some “rough edges”. 

For example, now that the authorities have cleared the dormitories, they are helping the migrant workers resume work, especially in the construction industry, but this is a complicated exercise because of the safety measures involved, as there is a risk of cases re-emerging, he said.

“I know we have made things more difficult and burdensome for employers, especially the contractors and subcontractors,” he said, noting that they have found it frustrating to deal with all the new rules, approvals and inspections, even as they try to get their businesses up and running again.

“But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe. It is better that we make these measures work and get businesses to operate safely, than to suffer a new outbreak and have to shut down again.”

COVID-19 NO ‘DISEASE X’

Singapore was able to deal with Covid-19 only because the public service, political leadership, businesses, and the public have worked together and played their part, Mr Lee said.

He stressed, however, that the country must not let its guard down even as the situation is currently stable.

“The irony is that the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary,” he said.

He shared an email he recently received from a university student who complained that his socialising had been disrupted, describing Singapore’s response to Covid-19 as “one of the greatest overreactions to a public health issue”.

The student urged the Government to let young Singaporeans perform “the service of achieving herd immunity” instead.

To this, Mr Lee said: “You only have to look at the situation in other cities that have let this happen, to imagine how this could have turned out for us. The Covid-19 virus remains as infectious and potent as it was before. This has not changed.”

He added: “If we relax these measures now because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence. Just look at Europe and many other places in the world.” 

Covid-19 will also not be Singapore’s last public health crisis, Mr Lee warned. Even after the current pandemic passes, the country must continue preparing for an even worse pandemic using the lessons learnt from Covid-19.

Mr Lee underscored this with what scientists call “Disease X” — a placeholder name adopted by the WHO in 2018 to represent a potential serious pandemic caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.

“Covid-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X. It is, by far, not the worst new disease that can befall humankind,” he said.

“But it is only a matter of time before Disease X happens, so we had better learn from Covid-19 how to deal with a pandemic, and be as ready as we can, should a worse one —  when a worse one —  befall us.”

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus Migrant Workers dormitories Lee Hsien Loong face mask

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