Lawrence Wong Answers 18 Questions On MS News ‘Off The Record’ Livestream
As Singaporeans get ready to move to the next stage of reopening on 21 Jun, more questions on the new safety measures are bound to weigh on everyone’s minds.
Can we dine out if we have more than 2 people in a family? How can restaurants enforce these restrictions effectively? Will we still need to wear masks when we’re vaccinated?
MS News had a Q&A session with Finance Minister Lawrence Wong – the public face of Singapore’s Covid-19 response – who answered some of these pressing concerns.
Here’s a summary of all 18 questions he answered during the ‘Off The Record’ livestream on Saturday night (19 Jun).
The answers below have been paraphrased for clarity and accuracy. You can check out the full interview here.
1. We seem to be in a very different situation than when the outbreak started over 1 year ago. Why is this so & is the virus variant more infectious now?
It certainly is, that’s one reason why it’s very different from last year.
The Alpha variant from the United Kingdom is 50% more transmissible than the original strain from Wuhan. The Delta variant from India is 60% more infectious than the Alpha variant.
So effectively, we’re talking about a variant that’s 2.5 times more infectious than the original strain.
That’s why we’re seeing breakouts in places that we’ve never seen before in the previous year, such as large clusters in shopping malls and markets. The Delta variant is now the most dominant variant in the world.
The good news for us is that we have 3 key strategies:
- We’re conducting more tests—our testing capabilities have improved. We also have fast test kits now.
- We’re doing more comprehensive contact tracing with TraceTogether and SafeEntry to ringfence clusters quickly.
- We’re vaccinating everyone—this is the game-changer.
2. What are some of the planning perimeters of safe management measures?
We look at how the virus spreads. There are 4 key factors to be aware of:
- Types of activities—high-risk activities like singing allow droplets to spread faster and further with a force of exertion
- Duration—spending more than 30 minutes in a place
A classic example of this is if you’re in a small room singing with many people. Then the type of activity, density, distance, and duration are all risk factors.
That’s why we haven’t been able to allow activities like karaoke and nightclubs to resume.
People may wonder about public transport being a high-risk setting, but there are ways to reduce these risk factors like keeping quiet and wearing a mask.
We have good ventilation in trains. Airflow is continuously replenished to reduce the risk of density and distance.
3. It was announced that an $800mil support package would help businesses & workers cope with the impact of tightened measures. How does the government know who to help?
The impact of the Heightened Alert phase is quite different from ‘Circuit Breaker’. Last year, it was more of a general lockdown. As a result, many activities were shut down. That’s why we provided significant help across the board.
This year, we took targeted measures. First, we focused on settings where activities indoors without masks are held, as they have the highest risk. Hence, we closed gyms and fitness centres, and restricted dining in.
By targeting specific sectors, we knew how to design support measures to help them.
4. With the government spending more to support Singaporeans, will we run out of money?
There’s always a risk because we do not have an endless supply of money. We’re trying very hard to make sure that we only use our reserves sparingly in an emergency.
When things have improved, we’ll try to get back to a balanced budget and live with what we have. But, it’s also important for us to ensure that we leave something for the next generation.
5. How important is vaccination in the fight against Covid-19?
Vaccination is the key measure that will allow us to reopen safely. We need everyone to step forward and get vaccinated when their turn comes.
Yes, people may get infected after getting vaccinated, but you’ll only get mild symptoms even if you are. The likelihood of suffering from a severe illness is very low.
When more people are vaccinated in society, there’s evidence in the world that shows transmission risks are reduced. So this means when more people are vaccinated in Singapore, we’ll have more confidence to open up without worrying that there’d be a major outbreak.
With regard to vaccination, we have 2 important milestones to hit:
- To have 50% of the population fully vaccinated by August.
- To have 75% of the population fully vaccinated by October.
6. Why are families (2 parents 2 kids) not allowed to sit together during dine-in in the next phase? Why do they have to split into 2 tables?
We need to ensure that the 2-per-table rule is easy to administer across the board and that there’s no change to this. However, we do allow that if you’re from the same household, e.g. you have 4 people, you can do 2 tables with 2 diners at each table.
First, you need to let the F&B outlet know that you’re from the same household. Then, they may check and verify and allow you to dine in together at separate tables.
If you’re not from the same household, and you’re asking your friends out for a meal and booking multiple tables, this is not allowed.
7. Can we bring our baby out for dine-in at 1 table?
It has to be 2 people at a table. It’ll be hard to enforce if people ask for exceptions, some will ask for babies, the elderly, etc.
We understand everyone wants a little bit more, but across all F&B outlets, it’ll be hard to enforce a rule with different variations.
So the simple rule is 2 per table and that has to be applied across the board. But you can have more than 1 table for 1 household, adjacent to each other.
8. How will F&B outlets be safeguarded against Covid-19 when dine-ins begin on Monday?
For anyone who’s not feeling well, please don’t go out.
Keep your mask on if you’re not eating, maintain a 1-metre safe distance. There will also be no music and no live entertainment at eateries to reduce risks further.
All employees in the F&B sector will also be tested more regularly.
9. Is there a chance that current restrictions of 2 pax for dining in will be lifted before mid-July?
Mid-July is the timeline set because we want to see vaccination rates go up higher. We’re expecting some deliveries of vaccine supplies coming in the next few days, which will let us ramp up vaccination rates.
We also want to get a testing regime for F&B outlets & gyms in place. This new measure requires people working in these higher-risk settings to be tested regularly using rapid test kits.
Once all these are implemented, we would have more confidence to move to the next stage, i.e. 5 pax dining in.
10. What must Singapore do to remain competitive in a world with limited travel & social interactions?
Singapore can weather the impact of restricted measures and closed borders for a short time. But if we have to keep our borders shut for 1 year, I think many businesses will leave Singapore. So we’ll lose competitiveness, and many jobs for Singaporeans will be at stake.
We’re mindful of the risks. That’s why, at some stage, we must be able to reopen our economy and our borders and progressively ease restrictions.
But we must reach high levels of vaccination coverage first. So the key is still vaccination. We hope we can reach our targets and then start easing measures progressively, allowing us to regain our competitiveness.
11. Why don’t we proceed with a complete ‘Circuit Breaker’ due to the rise in community cases?
It’s very disruptive. It’s not as though doing that will assure you of zero infections. At some point, you have to open your borders. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have restricted air travels to the point where some of their citizens overseas cannot return.
If we were to do that in Singapore and restrict travel to both travellers and returning Singaporeans, and we do that for a year, I don’t think we can sustain that kind of closure.
Singapore is such a small open economy. Having a ‘Circuit Breaker’ may sound like it’s going to work, but the minute you open up, you’re bound to introduce the virus into Singapore one way or another. And then it means, if you have to take that approach, literally every other week, we’ll be in lockdown mode.
Can we sustain that? What kind of impact will that have on businesses? If you consider Singapore’s unique circumstance, it’s actually tough to implement such a policy.
12. If everyone is fully vaccinated, will we still need to wear a mask?
We’re looking at the possibility. If a high proportion of people are vaccinated, we will ease and relax many safe management measures. For example, you could have concerts, football matches, sports events. Then we’ll have to review the mask-wearing requirement.
Potentially, we could say if you’re outdoors, you may not need to wear masks. But in indoor & high-risk settings, mask-wearing may still be required.
Once 75% of the population have been vaccinated – hopefully by October – we’ll review and see how we can progressively ease and relax our safety measures.
And by then, it’s time that we treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease, like chickenpox or the regular flu. But because of the high vaccination rate, the threat of Covid-19 at that time won’t be very different from the regular flu.
13. What’s the roadmap out of the pandemic?
We’re looking at the 2 milestones to achieve—50% fully vaccinated, and 75% fully vaccinated. Those will be the markers for us to see more opening of the economy. So when we reach 50%, we can do more easing of some of the measures but not entirely.
When we reach 75%, we can expect a lot more easing of restrictions, and it will be as close as we can get to living life normally because, at that stage, we would have near-maximum protection against the virus.
14. How often will we need to take booster shots for Covid-19 in the future?
Our experts are still deliberating over this. Evidence shows that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines provide immunity that lasts for quite some time, though we’re still studying the exact duration, which is certainly more than a year.
It’s not going to be permanent, at some time it will wane. That’s when booster shots may be necessary. We’re still studying how booster shots will be administered next year.
If Covid-19 ends up being endemic, then vaccination will be a regular part of our defence mechanism.
15. Minister Gan Kim Yong & Ong Ye Kung ‘arrow’ you to do this again ah?
*laughs* No la. I’m not sure if you’ve invited them to come to the show because this was an invitation from all of you (MS News).
16. How are you coping during this period?
This is probably the most challenging thing I’ve had to do. But the good thing is I’m supported by a tremendous team and am lucky to be always cheered on by Singaporeans.
It’s important that we support each other and help those in need so that we can get through this together.
17. How do you destress when you’re off work?
It’s important that we take care of our mental well-being. Otherwise, we can’t function effectively. For me, I read, I listen to music, I play the guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was a boy.
I also enjoy nature walks with my wife, and I find that doing that helps me to relax and find inner peace.
18. Does your wife still help you to cut your hair?
Actually, she does. This started during ‘Circuit Breaker’ because barbers were closed then. I took a liking to it, and I asked her to continue. She kindly obliged.
Stay disciplined & have faith
Before ending his interview, Minister Wong tells us this:
We’ve all been on this journey together for 16 months now. I know people are feeling fatigued with all the ups and downs, but we are getting there. The key is to continue with our vaccination programme. So have confidence that we will soon reach our vaccination targets.
In the meantime, we have to be disciplined. We still need some restrictions and safeguards. That’s why we have this calibrated reopening.
Some of you may be disappointed that you can’t do everything you wish you could, but please understand why we have these measures in place. We don’t want a major outbreak to happen before we’ve reached a sufficiently high level of vaccine coverage. So please cooperate, and have confidence and faith that we will get through this together.
Watch the full interview here:
Off The Record is a new livestream series featuring a special guest every Saturday to address trending and emerging public concerns.
Stay tuned this coming Saturday at 8pm for the next episode.
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Featured image by MS News.