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‘Many things could have been done better’: COVID-19 task force chiefs on the lessons from the past year of the pandemic

SINGAPORE: Looking back on the fight against the pandemic in the past year, co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce and Education Minister Lawrence Wong admitted there were “certainly many things” that could have been done better.

“At the start of the year, when we were fighting this virus, there was so much uncertainty, so many things we didn’t know. We didn’t know about the asymptomatic nature of transmission; we didn’t know how infectious it was,” Mr Wong said in an interview with the media on Tuesday (Jan 19), alongside his co-chair, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

The interview was conducted just ahead of Singapore marking a year since it identified its first case of COVID-19 on Jan 23, 2020.

READ: Authorities mulling new COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Chinese New Year as community cases creep up

Mr Wong added that if they had had “a better picture then”, authorities would have “taken different measures”, without detailing any specific instances.

“Not everything we’ll get right, that’s for sure. The key, as I’ve said before, is that we have to be quick to adapt to adjust, to be nimble, put things right, recover from setbacks and move forward. And that’s the attitude we’ve had,” he said.

Mr Gan acknowledged that the possibility of asymptomatic transmission – where patients could be infectious even before showing symptoms – was an important characteristic about the virus they did not expect.

“If you remember in the very beginning, we said if you’re unwell with flu-like symptoms, go back, take five days MC and if you don’t recover, come and see the doctor again then we’ll test you,” Mr Gan said.

Authorities later realised that would not work, and decided to swab everyone who was symptomatic “so as to catch them earlier”, he said.

READ: Asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers have high viral loads: Study

“Even then, that’s not enough, because by the time you’re symptomatic and see a doctor, you’ve already gone few days as infectious. Therefore, even our contact tracing had to move backwards much longer so as to catch and detect more people who could have been exposed,” he added.

Responding to another question on how authorities could have avoided or mitigated the dramatic rise in cases in migrant worker dormitories, Mr Wong said: “We would have done what we’re doing today in the dorms. We’d be putting everyone on regular testing regimes. We would have taken far more measures that we had at that time, obviously.

“The challenge is if you were to think back at that time – it’s one thing to say I hope we can do it. But we didn’t have testing capabilities to test to the level we have today.

“So it’s also a question of wanting do something, but do you have the ability to carry it out and execute it?”

READ: IN FOCUS: The long, challenging journey to bring COVID-19 under control in migrant worker dormitories

Mr Wong added that there were limited resources in terms of manpower as well, and deploying one resource to a particular area would have meant channelling it away from another.

Both ministers reiterated an earlier pledge to conduct a full review of how the pandemic was handled, to see how processes and systems may be improved.

Gan Kim Yong and Lawrence Wong at interview

Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong and Minister for Education Lawrence Wong, who are co-chairs of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, speaking to the media on Jan 19, 2021. (Photo: Cheryl Lin)

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CIRCUIT BREAKER WAS TOUGH JUDGMENT CALL: MINISTERS

Singapore’s partial lockdown from Apr 7 to Jun 1 last year, which came to be known as the “circuit breaker”, was one of the most difficult decisions authorities had to make, the ministers said.

According to Mr Wong, they knew it would be “quite drastic”, with a significant impact on livelihoods and people’s mental wellbeing.

“How will it impact the vulnerable and elderly, and on balance, will it do more harm than good, or will we be able to address and effectively slow down transmission? That was a very tough decision to make, and there was a lot of uncertainty,” he added.

READ: COVID-19: Worries about pandemic see more calls to mental health helplines

And if the decision to implement the circuit breaker was tough, questions on how and when to end it were no less difficult.

“It’s so easy to say: ‘Be tight’. But for how long? Forever? One year, everyone cannot see each other? I think we will all go crazy,” said Mr Wong. “So what’s the right balance, and how to make such calibrations amid such great uncertainty?”

Mr Gan echoed that the move was very tricky because it also needed to be timed precisely.

“If you do it too soon, it’s not going to be effective. Then if you lift the circuit breaker and everything crops up, you must do it a second time … If you do it too late then it’s not going to help because you’re going to already have a big cluster in your hands.

“So we needed to time it, but we can never be perfect in timing, so you just have to have a sense and make a judgment,” he said.

Breaking into a small smile, Mr Gan added: “That’s why I said Lawrence was very decisive, said if we have to move, then move.”

He was referencing an earlier question posed to the ministers about what it was like working so closely with each other throughout the pandemic.

“Once the facts are clear, there are no ifs and buts, just move and get it done, so I think I’m very happy to be working with him, and it’s even enjoyable working with him – a very decisive co-chairman,” he said.

Returning the compliment, Mr Wong said he was fortunate to have known Mr Gan through other organisations, such as the PAP Community Foundation and the Singapore Labour Foundation, even before working together on the task force.

“In many ways, he’s been a great mentor … he has guided me along in the transition of chairmanship in these two positions … it has been a very pleasant and good working relationship because it was built on a relationship we already have.”

With a laugh, Mr Wong added: “He’s literally on my speed dial. I disturb him all the time.”

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES

The issue of uncertainty arose several times during the interview, with both ministers describing it as the biggest challenge in tackling COVID-19.

“As and when we needed to change our approach, we needed to move the whole-of-Government machinery to implement these changes,” said Mr Gan.

“We have to explain to people, communicate with Singaporeans to let them understand why we are introducing these measures and why we need do certain things that are not very popular, very tough,” he explained.

Another huge challenge was managing public sentiment. Mr Wong cited how at the start of the year, many people had clamoured for strict measures and believed the situation might “be over in a month”, but authorities had to warn that it was going to be a “long fight, a marathon”.

But when the number of local cases dipped, sentiment swung, said Mr Wong. “The mood was: Why don’t we open faster, why are we still doing Phase 2 measures, when can we get to Phase 3?”

He added: “That’s how (public mood) shifts so quickly and easily … to maintain a steady course and make sure that whatever we do, yes we have to take into account public opinion and feedback, but it ultimately has to be based on scientific evidence, data, expert opinion, and then explain that to the public and get public support for the measures. That’s, to me, one of the biggest challenges.”

“THEY MADE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE”

Wrapping up the interview, the ministers also reflected on the most memorable parts of the past year’s fight against COVID-19.

For Mr Gan, one such instance was witnessing how quickly community care facilities, such as the one at Singapore Expo, were put together. He said he was also moved by watching how people from different sectors – public and private – came together in a time of crisis to help.

Mr Wong added: “They made the impossible possible … If they had not done this, Singapore’s trajectory through COVID-19 would’ve been quite different.”

WATCH: Despite ‘exceptionally testing’ COVID-19 year, Singapore can see light at the end of the tunnel: PM Lee

He also cited how students at a school he visited had been writing thank you letters to frontline and essential workers.

“That was very heartening too … Hopefully, emerging from this crisis, we will be able to become a more inclusive, more gracious society because of (how) there is a greater appreciation for the important contributions that these people make, and we will have a greater sense of respect for work they do,” Mr Wong said.

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