PM Lee: Singapore govt must learn from errors of Covid-19 response but right decisions not always possible ‘in fog of war’

With hindsight, the government would have recommended face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said September 2, 2020 in Parliament. — TODAY pic
With hindsight, the government would have recommended face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said September 2, 2020 in Parliament. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 2 — With hindsight, the government would have recommended face masks sooner and acted earlier to better manage the migrant worker dormitories, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today as he admitted shortcomings in Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We must learn from these errors and do better the next time,” he said. “But in the fog of war, it’s not possible always to make the perfect decisions.”

PM Lee was speaking in Parliament on the third day of the debate on the President’s Address. His speech was broadcast live on CNA and the Prime Minister’s Facebook page.

He stressed that no country has been perfect in its pandemic response and noted that even countries that have fared better, such as South Korea and New Zealand, are facing a resurgence of cases as they open up again.

PM Lee noted that Singapore has done well in keeping fatality rates low, bringing down community infections and having fewer than 100 patients remaining in hospital. 

But the government would have handled some situations differently, he said, if it had the scientific data and experience it does now, when the pandemic struck.

“I wish we had known earlier that people with Covid-19 were infectious even when they were asymptomatic,” he added. 

If it had known that, the government would have quarantined all Singaporeans who arrived from abroad earlier in March and tested them before releasing them from isolation instead of assuming that not having symptoms meant they were free from infection.

The government would also have recommended everyone to wear face masks sooner, Lee added, rather than changing tack and distributing masks only when scientific advice shifted and the World Health Organisation recognised asymptomatic transmission was a serious problem.

And with better information, Singapore would also have acted “more aggressively” and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories, beyond the precautions that it thought was adequate at the time.

“All this is wisdom from fact,” Lee said. But while the situation was unclear, the Government had to make decisions quickly.

“The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as new information emerges and as the situation changes.”

Even now, Lee noted, because of the scale and complexity of the government operations, there have inevitably been some “rough edges”. 

For example, now that the authorities have cleared the dorms, they are helping the migrant workers resume work, especially in the construction industry, but this is a complicated exercise because of the safety measures involved, as there is a risk of cases re-emerging, he said.

“I know we have made things more difficult and burdensome for employers, especially the contractors,” he said, noting that they have found it frustrating to deal with all the new rules, approvals and inspections, even as they try to get their businesses up and running again.

“But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe. It is better that we make these measures work and get businesses to operate safely, than to suffer a new outbreak and have to shut down again.” — TODAY

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