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From testing sewage to making future vaccines affordable, S'pore has to learn to 'live with Covid-19': Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — The past two months of containment measures with the circuit breaker has allowed Singapore to boost its testing capacity to around 13,000 tests for the coronavirus each day, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in his televised ministerial broadcast on Tuesday (June 9).

From testing sewage to making future vaccines affordable, S'pore has to learn to 'live with Covid-19': Lawrence Wong

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong delivering a televised speech from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases on June 9, 2020.

SINGAPORE —  The past two months of containment measures with the circuit breaker has allowed Singapore to boost its testing capacity to around 13,000 tests for the coronavirus each day, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in his televised ministerial broadcast on Tuesday (June 9).

In early April, when the circuit breaker began, it was around 2,000 tests a day. Mr Wong, the co-chair of the task force in charge of the national effort to beat Covid-19, said that Singapore is on track to hit its daily target of 40,000 tests in the coming months.

“We’ve expanded our testing capacity hugely. We are procuring more test-kits, building more laboratory capacity, and recruiting and training more laboratory technicians as well as personnel to carry out swabs and take blood samples.”

Delivering Tuesday’s speech from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Mr Wong talked about Singapore’s short- to long-term moves to combat the “formidable and invisible enemy” in Covid-19, as he sketched out the realities that the country would face in prioritising both lives and livelihoods.

Mr Wong’s speech is the second of six broadcasts by Cabinet Ministers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first to speak on Sunday. Mr Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, is due to speak on Thursday.

Mr Wong said: “As we resume more activities, there will be more human contact and more opportunities for the virus to spread. So we must be mentally prepared to see more new cases.”

Therefore, Singapore’s ability to control the infection as it embarks on its three-phased reopening strategy is critical, he added.

To this end, the expanded testing capacity will allow more extensive tests of higher-risk groups, more surveillance testing in the community as well as a speedier and more accurate sense of undetected cases circulating in the population.

Besides standard testing methods such as swab tests, the authorities are conducting antibody tests that could detect the disease in recovered but previously unidentified cases.

Singapore is also “extracting waste water from manholes” to test for the virus, Mr Wong said.

“This provides an additional indicator to tell us if a specific group, such as those living in a dormitory, has infected people among them,” he added.

As of June 1, Singapore has carried out more than 408,000 tests, or 71,700 tests for every million in the population, the Ministry of Health said previously.

The circuit breaker has also allowed Singapore to raise its contact tracing capabilities — it expanded its contact tracing teams and developed tools such as the SafeEntry digital check-in system and the TraceTogether mobile application for smartphones.

The Government is now developing wearable Bluetooth devices — the TraceTogether Token — to aid in contact tracing.

Seeking the public’s understanding and cooperation in these efforts, Mr Wong urged people to use these tools to help slow down the spread of the virus and save lives.

“Aggressive testing and contact tracing will improve our ability to control the spread of the virus. They will help greatly in allowing business and life to resume progressively.”

EYEING A MADE-IN-SINGAPORE VACCINE

In the longer term, Mr Wong said that Singapore is working on developing vaccines against the coronavirus, pointing out that there is a massive global effort to do this as well.

The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) is in discussions with pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines in the country.

“We have a pharmaceutical industry and research capabilities in biomedical science… If and when a vaccine becomes available, we will make sure that every Singaporean who needs it gets it, and at an affordable price,” Mr Wong said.

However, he warned that it will take a long time before a vaccine would be ready and available for mass distribution despite international efforts.

“So we have to be realistic and gird ourselves for more challenging times. It is not likely that the virus will go away. Our population will be vulnerable for a long time, in a world where Covid-19 is all around us.

“We must therefore adapt to Covid-19, and learn to live with it over the long term. This does not depend upon Government actions alone. Every one of us — government, businesses and individuals — must do our part.”

Reiterating the importance of social responsibility in upholding good personal hygiene and following safe distancing measures, Mr Wong said that these collective actions will “make all the difference in keeping Covid-19 at bay”.

“They will enable us to have a safe and sustainable re-opening, as we have seen in countries like Denmark and New Zealand. 

“Conversely, if we are lax in our personal precautions, new cases and new clusters will multiply quickly, and despite our best efforts to test and trace, we might end up with another circuit breaker down the road.”

MAJOR CHANGES FOR CONSTRUCTION SECTOR

Recognising that the construction industry has been a “key vulnerability” during the pandemic, Mr Wong said that new safeguards at worksites and comprehensive Covid-19 testing for construction workers — Singaporeans and foreigners — will be needed.

He said: “The present dormitories are in fact the outcome of improvements made over the past decade. But despite this, and the precautions we took, we still had major outbreaks in the dormitories.”

As of June 8, there are 35,971 cases of Covid-19 among residents in foreign worker dormitories.

Singapore will tighten the safeguards and build newer dormitories that are more resilient against infection risks, Mr Wong said. 

The risks, however, will always be present because of the large number of workers living together and sharing communal facilities.

In order to reduce the reliance on migrant workers, the industry will also need to continue its push towards automation and higher productivity.

Mr Wong said that these significant changes will likely cost the construction industry more.

“For now, the Government is bearing these costs through the Fortitude Budget. Beyond that, we will introduce other measures to cushion the impact and to move the industry to new productivity levels.

“I have no doubt that this will be a very difficult transition. But I assure everyone in the industry that we will work closely with you to get through this difficult patch and to emerge stronger from this experience.”

LIVING WITH COVID-19

As for the community at large, the way people live and work will change as well, with Covid-19 precipitating a shift towards more flexible work arrangements, Mr Wong said.

“Our urban plans will need to cater to these new demands. 

“Office and building designs will also have to change, given what we now know about the risks of transmission in enclosed spaces.”

Better ventilation and air filtration within buildings are needed, and other features such as automatic doors, contactless fittings, hand sanitiser and temperature monitoring stations should also become part of the norm, Mr Wong said.

Companies will have to find new and safer ways to deliver products and services. Mr Wong, mentioned how there are many firms that have begun embracing digital solutions, including stallholders and hawkers at wet markets who are using digital payments and online platforms more.

Knowing that many people are anticipating the time when they can resume their usual routines and favourite activities, Mr Wong urged everyone to adjust their expectations, lifestyles and norms.

“Ultimately, reopening our economy and society does not mean going back to the status quo (before)… We have shown our grit, adaptability and resilience during the circuit breaker, and we must continue to demonstrate the same ingenuity and resourcefulness in this new phase,” he said.

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