Transcript of Minister Lawrence Wong's Opening Remarks at The Multi-Ministry Taskforce Press Conference on 24 September 202124 Sep 2021
Good evening. Earlier this month I had highlighted concerns about the rate at which the virus is spreading, and sought everyone's cooperation to scale back your activities and help slow down the transmission. I thank everyone in Singapore for your cooperation. Based on our observations and monitoring, activity levels have indeed come down over the recent weeks. Unfortunately, despite our collective efforts, the virus continues to gain ground. We are now at 1,600 new daily cases and as you heard just now, if the doubling of the cases continues, we will reach 3,200 by next month.
At some point, this wave of infection will crest. But we don't know what the daily numbers will be at the peak or when this crest will happen. Meanwhile, we are seeing tremendous strains on our healthcare system and our healthcare workers, and that's why we need these additional measures to slow down the spread of infection.
Minister Gan just now provided a summary of the measures, they will apply from 27th of September till the 24th of October. So that's a one-month period which we call the stabilisation period, and we will do a mid-term review of the measures after two weeks.
Let me elaborate on what these measures are. First, permissible group sizes for social gatherings will be reduced from a maximum of five persons to a maximum of two persons. So correspondingly, the maximum number of unique visitors per households will be reduced to two and dining group sizes will be reduced to two vaccinated persons. For hawker centers, we already allow two persons regardless of vaccination status to dine in a group. So that remains the same. Essentially, the group size parameter will come down from five to two and that will have implications for house visits, as well as dining.
Second, work-from-home will be the default, so we are returning to work-from-home as default for those who are able to. Today's parameter is 50%, up to half of the workforce who can work-from-home, can come back to the office but we will go back to work-from-home as default. Those who are unable to work-from-home and have to go back to the office, can do so but we will encourage, we would strongly encourage them to do a self-test using the ART kits once a week. We are distributing these kits to employers, so employers can make them available to the employees who have to come back on-site to work, and have them do these self-tests on a weekly basis. Those who are able to work-from-home, but from time to time, you may need to return to the office for ad hoc reasons, we will also encourage you to do a self-test and to test negative before you go back to the office. So work-from-home as default is the second change that we are making.
Thirdly, we will have Home-Based Learning for children. MOE had announced this earlier, that primary and special education schools will have Home-Based Learning from 27 September till 6 October. That is a Wednesday. So MOE will now extend the Home-Based Learning period to 7 October, which is a Thursday but Friday is Children's Day. Effectively what that means is from next Monday onwards, for the two weeks, primary school children will be undergoing Home-Based Learning, and primary 1 to 6 students will return to school on 11th of October. We will also require private education institutions to implement Home-Based Learning for all students aged 12 years and below over this two-week period. During this period, in-person tuition and enrichment classes for students must also pivot online.
Preschools and kindergartens will be open during this period, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home if they can. For Home-Based Learning at the primary school level, we are doing it for two weeks, and we will review thereafter whether or not it should continue. More generally, we encourage everyone to reduce their social activities and comply with all the safe management measures, and in particular for the elderly – for seniors and persons with co-morbidities who are more vulnerable to severe illnesses – we strongly encourage you to stay at home as much as possible.
We recognise that businesses will be impacted by these restrictions. They are not the same as the Heightened Alert restrictions because businesses can still open, but with the reduction of group sizes, there will be an impact on F&B, retail and other businesses that are dependent on footfall. The Government will provide a support package to assist the affected businesses.
Let me highlight some of the key items in the support package. First, we will enhance the Job Support Scheme to 25% for the period of 27 September to 24 October, and this will be for the sectors that are significantly affected by the tightened measures.
Second, we will provide rental support for half the duration of the stabilisation phase, which means for two weeks. So tenants who are occupying Government-owned properties will enjoy a rental waiver of two weeks. For those qualifying occupiers in private commercial properties, whether you are tenant-occupier or owner-occupier, the Government will provide a two-week rental relief cash payout, under the Rental Support Scheme. And the cooked food and market stallholders in centres managed by the NEA or NEA-appointed operators will likewise receive a two-week rental waiver.
Thirdly, we will extend the COVID-19 Driver Relief Fund payout to support taxi and private hire car drivers as well.
The total sum of this support package is $650 million dollars. This will be funded from higher-than-expected revenues collected today, so there will be no draw on Past Reserves.
Let me say a few words in Mandarin on the support package before I continue in English.
I share Singaporeans’ disappointments on these new restrictions. We had all hoped that we could put these restrictions behind us, especially with our high vaccination rates and with our plans to move forward to a COVID-resilient nation. But the reality is that with the current infection trajectory, our healthcare system, and our healthcare workers are facing many pressures. And that's why we had to make this very difficult decision to apply some brakes, and to slow down the rate of transmission. I would like to join my co-chairs in assuring everyone that we are still committed to our reopening plans and we are continuing to stay the course, in our journey towards being a COVID-resilient nation. That's why you would have noticed we are much more targeted in our tightening measures this time.
We are focused on reducing the group size, so as to scale back social interactions. We have left many other parameters untouched. For example, we are still allowing mask-on vaccinated events to continue. These are generally of lower risk and they have not resulted in large transmission clusters. We are still continuing with our plans for travel. For example, we started the Vaccinated Travel Lane pilots with Germany and Brunei and the pilots have demonstrated that it's possible for vaccinated persons to travel safely.
And we are still proceeding with our plans to allow our dormitory workers to come out and be in the community. So where it makes sense, we have allowed these measures to continue and we will continue with these measures. But we are taking a careful, calibrated approach to tighten certain restrictions, and these will reinforce our own individual efforts to scale back our social interactions.
By doing so, we will be able to stabilise our new healthcare protocols, especially for home recovery. We will give more breathing space for all our healthcare workers who have been working flat out throughout this past 20 months.
And we will be able to augment our healthcare capacity further. This period will also allow more people to have their first jabs and seniors to get their boosters. So I seek everyone's cooperation and support for these measures. Even with these measures, as my co-chairs have said just now, we do not expect numbers to come down at all. In fact, they will continue to rise. But hopefully, at a slower rate than before, so that we can ride through this wave, without overwhelming our healthcare system.
After this wave crests, and it certainly will at some point in time, the daily numbers will come down. But they will stabilise at a new level, which is likely to be much higher than what we have been used to before.
In other words, we are not going back to a scenario of low daily cases anymore. It is not going to be possible, because we are moving forward to learn to live with the virus and we are continuing with our reopening plans. So that is part of the adjustment that we all have to make, to prepare ourselves for the time when COVID-19 becomes an endemic disease and learn to live with more daily cases. But because of this rapid surge in cases, and the stresses and strains we are seeing on our healthcare system and on our healthcare workers, we have to put in place these temporary brakes.
I know this is not an easy time. It is hard for everyone to adjust to tighter measures again. I fully understand that. So I seek your understanding, support and your forbearance. Once our healthcare system is stabilised, once a new healthcare capacity is in place, we will continue with our reopening plans. Meanwhile, let us continue to support one another and look out for each other, especially our frontliners and our healthcare workers. We will get through this together. Thank you.