PM Lee Hsien Loong's doorstop interview with local media at National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID)

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 31 January 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong gave a doorstop interview to local media at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) on Friday, 31 January 2020. 


PM Lee Hsien Loong: There are a lot of good questions. I do not need to answer all of them because I think some of them belong to the Ministers that are handling but let me say why I am here today. We have been watching the new coronavirus outbreak in China for some time as soon as the first news came out. We have actually been preparing for a situation like this ever since we had SARS in 2003, 17 years ago. We have built up our institutions, our plans, our facilities, our stockpiles, our people, our training because we knew that one day something like that would happen again. So, when this thing came about, in a way, it is a shock, but it is not a surprise. I was away, when we set up the committee to respond as the situation got heated-up. I was away in Davos but when I came back and had a chance, I wanted to come and visit to see our preparations, our facilities, our organisations and most of all the people, the teams who are working day and night looking after patients, screening the suspect cases, tracking the public health, new visitors coming in and making sure that we have a coordinated national response to this new coronavirus, which has become a very serious problem in China, and as WHO has recognised as an international medical emergency.

So far we have done well in terms of catching the cases which have come in, isolating them, treating them, and some of them are here in the NCID. The doctors tell me that the patients are generally doing well which is good news but we have to continue to be vigilant because the outbreak is far from over. In fact, it is still accelerating in China. We do not know what is going to happen in other countries. It has spread to many other countries. No other country has got huge number of cases like China so far, but we do not know how the countries will be able to react, detect and contain. It can become a major problem for the world and not just for a short while but for quite a long time to come. So, we have to continue to be on guard. I think that the government has our plans together. I think we have very professional, dedicated medical and public health teams. I think that the public is very aware of the situation. We have this WhatsApp chat group, and more than a quarter million people have signed up for the information, which are putting out on the chat group.

So, we are doing everything that we can. I think there is every reason to be watchful, but there is also every reason to be confident and for each one of us to do our part, to be sensible.

First, on personal hygiene, wash your hands frequently. Do not touch your face, mouth and eyes unnecessarily because that is how germs get on your hands, into your body. If you are unwell, stay away from work and crowds, stay at home. If you are well, go about your life as normal. You do not need a mask to go around Singapore, or to be at work if you are well. Because there is no community spread of the virus and the mask gives you a false sense of security. Because most of the time, you do not get the virus from breathing it in, you get it from contact and you need to take the rest of the precautions to wash your hands, to keep yourself clean, and to know when you are unwell and to stay away from others.

So, I am very happy with what I saw this morning, I met a few of the staff and thanked them personally. But there are more than a thousand who are working in NCID and people working all over at the entry points, the ICA staff, the other hospitals, and all over the ministries and the SAF and the PA, who are going to be distributing the masks this weekend. I think if we work together, we can overcome this challenge. I have every confidence.

Q: PM, given that this is now a global health emergency, does this change anything about Singapore’s approach?

PM Lee: We have been taking it very seriously all along but it is a dynamic situation and we are watching the developments and the assessments. This assessment by the WHO yesterday confirms our view of the situation, and the ministers are evaluating what we should do next. I think they will have some announcements to make later today.

Q: The anti-Chinese sentiments are quite high overseas, so what is your message to Singaporeans?

PM Lee: I read an article in the international New York Times yesterday which says that in many countries people see this as a Chinese thing, and have a reaction against China and PRC Chinese particularly because they think they are the cause of the virus. I think that is not quite the right approach to take. This is an illness, I do not think the Chinese wished it upon themselves. They are trying very hard to fight it and I think we should work with them to help make sure this is not a global problem. We have to protect ourselves, but we have to be quite clear that this is not a virus which is only carried by people who come from China. It is a virus which can affect any human being. I think we should have that firmly in mind.

Q: What measures do we have in place in case of community spread of the virus?

PM Lee: I think we are not anywhere near that point; we will do our best to make sure we prevent community spread. If we are vigilant, if people come forward when they are unwell and we can identify the cases and isolate them, I think that we are a long way from having a community spread. But I would also say that this is a virus which has similarities to SARS and related to the SARS virus, but behaves differently from the SARS virus. It is probably more infectious. It is possibly infectious earlier even before people have symptoms. On the other hand, if you look at the data coming out from China, and even the cases that we have here, it is not as lethal as the SARS virus. The death rate is much lower, and in China, they are reporting that maybe about 20 per cent of the cases they see become seriously ill. We call it Wuhan pneumonia, but some of the cases, about half, do not even have pneumonia. They have a virus and an infection, but they do not have pneumonia. It is an illness, which we are still trying to get the shape of. I do not think we need to panic.

Q: What is the government doing to mitigate the economic impact of the travel restrictions on the tourism industry?

PM Lee: It is going to hurt us. China is a very big source of tourists for Singapore. I think we have around three million tourists who come from China in normal years. With this, that has tailed off considerably already. I think tourism from other sources will also tail off, because everybody will be cautious, and will stay at home and avoid travel. So I think the travel, F&B and hotel industries are bound to be significantly affected. I expect the rest of the economy also to be affected, because with China in semi-lockdown mode now, the economy is bound to slow down. Our economy is quite tightly engaged with theirs; they are our biggest trading partner. We are working hard with MTI and the other agencies on suitable measures to help businesses, Singaporeans, and the economy see through this crisis period.

Q: PM, how can Singapore enhance its measures to counter the spread of untruths about the virus?

PM Lee: I am very glad that we have POFMA, because this is one difference between this round and SARS in 2003. During SARS, we did not have social media. This round, you have social media, WhatsApp, and all sorts of stuff circulating around. Some rumours are because people are scared, and when they hear something, it gets transmitted, distorted and becomes untrue. You are not sure but it is very scary, you tell your family and friends, and then it goes around. Some of it we know is malicious and deliberate. It is also people who are making up stories, people who deliberately fomenting FUD –fear, uncertainty and doubt. We have acted promptly with them, against them using POFMA. We are very diligent in putting out information as quickly as we get it, and as quickly as we can verify it, in order to make sure that people know what it is, what is the truth, what you need to worry about and what you should ignore. I think we have got many channels. The government is also on the social media. We are on the mass media and mainstream media. All of you have a very important responsibility in this situation to explain to people what is happening, to report things which do happen whether it is a favourable development or a new worrying change, and to make sure that people have sources of news which they can trust, are reliable, and which they will turn to. I think we have a good chance of succeeding in doing that.

Q: How can we strike a balance between being well-prepared versus overreacting to the current situation, for example with the mask situation?

PM Lee: I think as a government, in a way, we are overreacting because we are trying to look ahead to see what can go wrong and take pre-emptive steps to prevent that from happening. If you see that something did not go wrong, it is not just, ‘heng ah’, I am very happy it did not happen. But it means that we have done things which were right, and are glad that it did not have to be tested. But for individuals, I think you have to take the best advice on how best to protect yourself and what is the best thing for us to do collectively as a community in order to come through this safely and well. We have enough masks in Singapore. We have not run out, there are plenty. But if everybody carries one, wears one everyday – well or not well – and there are six million people in Singapore, everyday I will need six (million) times three or four masks. In that case, I will run out. But the doctors do not advise us all to wear masks walking around. It is not helpful. In fact, it can be counterproductive because it may give you a false sense of security. You might think that you are safe, but in fact, your hands are dirty, your mask may be dirty when you take off your mask and you touch it. That is when you get infected – not when you wear your mask. Therefore, I think we all want to be careful, and we all want to protect our families and loved ones, especially our children. If you have elderly parents, they are vulnerable. Their body’s resistance and immunity are not as good, but I think we have to take the best advice as to how best we can do that. I would go with a doctor's advice.

Q: Earlier, you interacted with the healthcare staff. Can you share your thoughts on their effort?

PM Lee: I have a lot of respect for them. They took this job. They know it is a difficult job and one which is not without risk. They have been through SARS before, some of them. Some are younger, and in a way this is their first time dealing with a situation like this. But they have been training for it consistently for their careers. I think their training, the know-hows, instincts and values they embody will see them through. So I thank them.

Q: 请总理谈一下今天考察的情况如何,病患目前的状况如何?如果出现疫情爆发,我们是否有足够的床位来容纳这些病患?

李显龙总理: 我今天来NCID是要看看我们的设施,我们所做好的准备,探望我们的执勤人士。许多在幕后默默耕耘的重要人物。我感到很欣慰,NCID是去年9月开幕,我们在SARS之后决定要改善防疫传染措施,这里有300多个床位,特别适合有传染病的病人使用。他们给我很详细的解释,如果有病人会怎么运作,他们的手续、措施,如何保护自己的措施,以及如何照顾病人,我有信心这一方面他们完全到位,可以应对挑战。好几个自武汉来的确诊病人就是在NCID,医生说他们情况整体是稳定,有所改善。虽然他们有新冠状病毒,病情良好,有一两位,病毒数目值已渐渐减少。我有信心,情况是乐观的。

Q: 在什么样的情况底下,政府会把黄色警戒升级为橙色(Orange Alert)?

李总理: 这个要看我们国内的情况和国外的情况。目前为止,最多病患的国家是中国,因为武汉肺炎是中国源起的。不过现在有许多国家都已经有确诊病例,我们不知道日后这个病患会很快达到高峰,然后慢慢退潮,或者会继续下去,维持好几个月的时间。两个都有可能,所以我们要看国际情况,和国内控制疫情的局势,会决定还要采取什么措施,会需要怎么调整黄色、橙色和红色的等级。肯定来说,会有更多措施出炉。今天下午就会有一些措施会公布。