COVID-19: Most workplaces to close from 7 April; schools to roll out full home-based learning

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter

SINGAPORE — The government will close most workplaces, except for essential services and those in key economic sectors, starting from next Tuesday (7 April) while educational institutions will roll out full home-based learning a day after, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (3 April).

Essential services like food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport, and key banking services will remain open, he said of the month-long closure until 4 May.

“We also should not disrupt economic sectors that are strategic, or form part of a global supply chain. People working in these industries can continue to go to work, with safe-distancing measures in place,” he added.

Lee stressed that people should work from home where possible, while arrangements would be made for those who are unable to, such as foreign workers who live in dormitories and work on construction sites and in shipyards.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) will also work with schools and institutes of higher learning to roll out full home-based learning starting next Wednesday, Lee added. This is expected to last till 4 May.

“All preschool and student care centres will also be closed, but will provide limited services for children of parents who have to continue working and are unable to make alternative care arrangements,” he said.

Such “circuit breaker” measures were announced during Lee’s 25-minute televised speech in English, Malay and Mandarin. The address, his third on the pandemic, was broadcast across TV and radio at 4pm.

‘Decisive move’ to pre-empt escalating infections

Such tighter measures will help reduce the risk of a big outbreak as well as gradually bring the numbers of cases down, said Lee, who noted the increasing emergence of local transmissions and clusters.

They will also allow the government to relax some of the other existing measures.

“I discussed this with the (COVID-19) multi-ministry taskforce. We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infection,” he said.

The measures also include tightening restrictions on movements and gatherings of people here.

“It boils down to three things: first, stay at home, as much as possible. Second, avoid socialising with others beyond your own household – gatherings should be confined to your household,” said Lee.

“Third, go out only to do essential things.”

Authorities here have been slowly introducing stringent social distancing measures, such as the closure of entertainment venues such as bars, cinemas, and nightclubs.

They also include capping social gatherings at 10 people at any time, and deferring or cancelling all events regardless of size. Those who fail to comply could be jailed up to six months, or fined up to $10,000, or both, under the Infectious Diseases Act.

Lee stressed that keeping a safe distance from others will keep the virus from spreading, but acknowledged it is “very hard” to do. But people should adjust their habits, for instance, doing marketing on weekdays instead of weekends to avoid the crowd.

“The spirit of these measures is to get all of us to minimise physical contact. If we don’t go out, if we avoid contact with others, then the virus won’t be able to spread,” he added.

The government will also deploy more safe-distancing ambassadors to encourage people more firmly not to crowd together, he added.

“Safe distancing is also hard for a psychological and emotional reason: it goes very much against our human instincts,” said Lee.

“It is in our nature to want to socialise, to be close to those we are talking to, to take comfort in the warmth and company of friends and family.”

Enough food supplies to last; ‘long fight’ but S’pore can see through

Lee also assured Singaporeans that the city-state has enough food supplies to last through “the period and beyond”, and called on for people not to rush to stock up supplies “for weeks at one time”.

“You can still shop at the supermarket or wet market and you need not rush to stock up for weeks at a time. You can still buy food from your favourite hawker centres or coffee shop, though you will have to take out and eat at home with your own family rather than hang out and eat outside with your friends,” he said.

Acknowledging the severe impact of such measures on workers and businesses, Lee said that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will announce additional support for households and businesses, “over and above what was provided in the two earlier Budgets”, in Parliament on Monday.

“We will also legislate to require landlords to pass on property tax rebates fully to their tenants and pass new temporary legislation to let businesses and individuals defer certain contractual obligations for a period, such as paying rent, repaying loans, or completing work,” he added.

The government will also no longer discourage people from wearing masks, said Lee. Previously, it had advised the public to only wear a mask if they are not feeling well.

“Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it. This is so that you keep your droplets to yourself,” he explained.

“It can also protect yourself a little better, especially if you are elderly, or vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions.”

However, surgical masks will still be conserved for “the people who really need them”, such as healthcare workers in clinics and hospitals, Lee said.

Therefore, the government will distribute reusable masks to all households from Sunday, he added, noting that many community groups have been making and distributing such masks for the elderly and vulnerable groups.

“The next few weeks will be pivotal. Even after these stepped-up measures, the number of cases will quite likely still go up in the next few days,” Lee said.

“But if we keep our efforts up, within a few weeks we should be able to bring the numbers down and get into a more sustainable position. We will keep on doing our utmost to protect every Singaporean from COVID-19.”

Thanking those who have been working tirelessly for the past two months – nurses and doctors, contact tracers and other healthcare staff – Lee stressed that Singaporeans are now “all enlisted to join them on the frontline”.

“It will be a long fight,” he said. “But if any country can see this through, it is Singapore.”

To date, Singapore has 1,114 cases of the virus, including 25 who remain in the intensive care unit and five who have died.

Global coronavirus cases surpassed one million early Thursday morning, with more than 51,000 deaths.

Transcript of his speech in English:

“I last spoke to you on COVID-19 three weeks ago. Since then, the number of new cases daily has begun to rise.

We used to see fewer than 10 new cases a day. But in the last two weeks, despite our best efforts, we have routinely had more than 50 new cases daily.

Initially, many of the new cases were imported from overseas, mostly returning Singaporeans. Then last week, we began to have more local cases.

Furthermore, despite our good contact tracing, for nearly half of these cases, we do not know where or from whom the person caught the virus.

This suggests that there are more people out there who are infected, but who have not been identified and they may be passing the virus unknowingly to others.

In the last few days, we have also discovered several clusters at foreign worker dormitories, and one at a nursing home.

These are very worrying because large numbers of people live together in dormitories and nursing homes.

A single case can quickly lead to a large cluster. Furthermore, nursing home patients are mostly old and frail, and very vulnerable to the virus.

As the situation developed over the past weeks, we have tightened our safe-distancing measures progressively.

Singaporeans have responded well, calmly and responsibly, and made adjustments in their daily lives. By working together, we have kept the outbreak under control.

But looking at the trend, I am worried that unless we take further steps, things will gradually get worse, or another big cluster may push things over the edge.

I discussed this with the multi-ministry taskforce. We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections.

We will, therefore, impose significantly stricter measures.

This is like a circuit breaker. It will help reduce the risk of a big outbreak occurring, and it should also help to gradually bring our numbers down.

This, in turn, will then allow us to relax some of the measures. This circuit breaker will apply for one month, in the first instance.

The task force is holding a press conference immediately after I finish speaking to you, to explain the details.

But let me give you the key points. First, we will close most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors.

Food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport, and key banking services will remain open. They are essential services.

We also should not disrupt economic sectors that are strategic or form part of a global supply chain. People working in these industries can continue to go to work, with safe-distancing measures in place.

But most other work premises must close. If the person can work from home, he should do so.

But others will not be able to, including foreign workers on construction sites and in shipyards. These workers live in dormitories, and we will make arrangements to look after them.

This will take effect from next Tuesday.

We have to ensure that most of our workforce stay at home and limit their physical interaction to as few people as possible.

Second, we will also move to full home-based learning in our schools and institutes of higher learning. We started with one day of home-based learning this week.

MOE will work with the schools to implement full home-based learning starting next Wednesday.

All preschool and student care centres will also be closed but will provide limited services for children of parents who have to continue working and are unable to make alternative care arrangements.

Third, we will tighten our restrictions on movements and gatherings of people.

It boils down to three things. First, stay at home, as much as possible.

Second, avoid socialising with others beyond your own household – gatherings should be confined to your household. Avoid visiting even your extended families who are not staying with you, especially if they are elderly or vulnerable.

Third, go out only to do essential things.

For work, if you are in essential services or key economic sectors, to buy food at markets, or to take out from restaurants and hawker centres, or to exercise in the neighbourhood park, keeping a safe distance from others.

The spirit of these measures is to get all of us to minimise physical contact. If we don’t go out, if we avoid contact with others, then the virus won’t be able to spread.

It is as simple as that – I know this is very hard to do.

As a practical matter, in places like hawker centres and wet markets, it is difficult to practise safe-distancing, especially on the weekends when it is crowded.

It will help if we all adjust our habits. For example, do our marketing on weekdays instead of weekends to avoid the crowd.

We will also deploy more safe-distancing ambassadors to encourage people more firmly not to crowd together, so please cooperate with them.

Safe distancing is also hard for a psychological and emotional reason: it goes very much against our human instincts.

It is in our nature to want to socialise, to be close to those we are talking to, to take comfort in the warmth and company of friends and family.

I fully understand this. But I hope you will also understand why we all have to take social distancing extremely seriously in this period.

This is the only effective way to slow the transmission of the virus so that we gradually bring our numbers down.

It is also the best way to keep our families safe, and particularly to protect our seniors from getting ill. So please bear with the painful adjustments that we have to make.

Each and every one of us can, and must do our part, to keep everyone in Singapore safe from COVID-19.”

After delivering Malay and Mandarin speeches:

“I decided to speak to you directly today to explain why we need to make this major move, but also to reassure you that things will be alright.

Essential services will continue running so that all of us can cope with this new situation, as we hunker down to fight this virus.

We have enough food supplies to last us through this period and beyond. You can still shop at the supermarket or wet market and you need not rush to stock up for weeks at a time.

You can still buy food from your favourite hawker centres or coffee shop, though you will have to take out and eat at home with your own family, rather than hang out and eat outside with your friends.

I know these measures will impact our workers and businesses severely. This is already a very difficult time for them – we will help them come through this.

On Monday in Parliament, DPM Heng will announce additional support for households and businesses, over and above what was provided in the two earlier Budgets.

We will also legislate to require landlords to pass on property tax rebates fully to their tenants and pass new temporary legislation to let businesses and individuals defer certain contractual obligations for a period, such as paying rent, repaying loans, or completing work.

Besides implementing this circuit breaker, we also are rethinking our advice on face masks.

Up to now, the government has advised the general public that you only need to wear a mask if you are not feeling well, and this is to protect others from your germs.

This was based on scientific advice and guidelines from the WHO.

We also did not have community spread in Singapore then, so it was very unlikely for you to run into anyone with COVID-19 on the street, much less be infected by them.

Nevertheless, the government gave each household four surgical masks, to use in case you got sick, and to give people peace of mind.

Now, the situation is changing. We now think there are some cases out there in the community going undetected, though probably still not that many.

We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms, and yet still pass on the virus to others.

This is why the WHO is reviewing the issue of face masks, and so is the US CDC.

Therefore we will no longer discourage people from wearing masks.

Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it. This is so that you keep your droplets to yourself.

It can also protect yourself a little better, especially if you are elderly, or vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions.

We still want to conserve surgical masks for the people who really need them – healthcare workers in clinics and hospitals.

For everyone else, in a community setting, alternatives like reusable masks will give some added protection. So from this Sunday, the government will distribute reusable masks to all households.

Meanwhile, many community groups have been making and distributing reusable masks for the elderly and vulnerable. I applaud these efforts. They show our community spirit and care.

But remember, mask or no mask, you still need to wash your hands and keep a safe distance away from other people.

The next few weeks will be pivotal. Even after these stepped-up measures, the number of cases will quite likely still go up in the next few days.

They can be cases who have already been infected earlier, except they have not yet shown symptoms, or gone to see their doctor.

But if we keep our efforts up, within a few weeks we should be able to bring the numbers down and get into a more sustainable position.

We will keep on doing our utmost to protect every Singaporean from COVID-19.

Many people have been working tirelessly for the past two months – our nurses and doctors, our contact tracers and healthcare staff.

We thank them all for their efforts and sacrifices. Now we are all enlisted to join them on the frontline.

It will be a long fight. But if any country can see this through, it is Singapore.

We have the resources. We have the determination. We are united.

By helping one another through this, we will prevail, and emerge stronger. Thank you.”

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