2020 Hindsight: PM Lee gives mixed marks to Singapore’s COVID response

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the nation today in Parliament. Photo: CNA/YouTube
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the nation today in Parliament. Photo: CNA/YouTube

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mixed self-praise and some regrets today in a post-mortem on Singapore’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a national address that offered no new policies.

Speaking in Parliament for the first time since the July general election, Lee reflected on the city-state’s triumphs and missteps, going into some detail on steps he wished had been taken sooner. Among his regrets? Wishing he’d known sooner that people without symptoms could still be infectious and should be kept in quarantine.

Lee also noted that face masks should have been made compulsory sooner, and more aggressive actions taken earlier in the migrant worker dormitories where infections later exploded, leading to hundreds of thousands being held in virtual captivity as a containment measure. But he credited the partial lockdown measures and a “highly adaptable” public service sector for alleviating the situation. 

“Fortunately, we timed the circuit breaker right, and luckily it worked,” Lee said. 

Singapore went into partial lockdown on April 7 before it began to reopen in phases starting in June. Inbound travelers without visible symptoms were not put into quarantine until mid-February and started with only those arriving from China. Face masks were only made compulsory in April.

“The situation is currently stable, but we must not let our guard down,” Lee later added. 

The prime minister also said he knew the lockdown would cause social and economic disruption. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, and Singapore reported its worst second quarter in history last month. 

A fifth COVID-19 relief package approved last month put S$8 billion (US$6 billion) toward righting the economy, mainly through employer hiring incentives, travel vouchers to boost domestic tourism and salary subsidies. Nearly S$100 billion has been set aside for the pandemic since it began.

Several welfare assistance programs such as an income relief scheme were implemented to help those with financial difficulties. Lee hinted that social safety nets would be reviewed but “we should take some time to assess the landscape after COVID-19 to see how things unfold.”

“It is not just floating ideas like minimum wage and unemployment insurance, but assessing their impact carefully,” he added, citing policies proposed by the Workers’ Party. 

Lee closed his 90-minute speech holding back tears while offering a rousingly optimistic prediction.

“Do not doubt, do not fear. [The] jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again, SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew. And our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, ever more just and equal society,” Lee said.

I will be speaking in Parliament this afternoon on Singapore’s response to the pandemic, and how we are preparing for…

Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Lee last addressed the nation in June to call the election which took place a month later and kept the People’s Action Party in power.

Singapore today recorded 49 infections, three of which occurred outside the worker housing where they have been concentrated. Health officials have counted 56,901 infections and 27 deaths since January.

Other stories you should check out:

Nearly 9 in 10 of Singapore’s dorm residents free of COVID-19: Manpower Ministry
Smaller $8B rescue package on the way for wages, hiring, travel: Heng Swee Keat
Dear COVID-19: Singaporeans pandemic memories saved in diary entries, videos by project
COVID-19 recovery facility closed at Changi Exhibition Centre

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