By- EDITOR BANIBRATA DATTA (FTFMI)
SINGAPORE: A dedicated centre for public health as well as a team that will anticipate and monitor risks will be set up to better prepare Singapore for the next pandemic, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Mar 20).
This comes after a white paper, released earlier this month, detailed the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and identified areas where it could have done better.
During his opening speech for a debate on the white paper in Parliament, Mr Wong stressed the need to grow expertise in public health and pandemic management, in order to detect novel pathogens quickly and develop measures to control the spread.
While Singapore already has some of these capabilities, he said these currently reside in various parts of the healthcare system including the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) and the Ministry of Health (MOH).
To consolidate these capabilities and expertise, a dedicated centre for public health – similar to Centres for Disease Control in other countries – will be set up, he said.
“This will enable us to develop stronger competence in public health, and grow these capabilities over time,” he added.
Highlighting the strain that COVID-19 had placed on Singapore’s healthcare capacity and manpower, Mr Wong said whatever forward planning capacity set aside during the last three years had competed with operational demands for resources and mindshare to fight the “immediate fire”.
Learning from this, Singapore will set up a dedicated forward planning team with the bandwidth and expertise to look ahead, he said.
“This will help us better anticipate the next bound, develop our next course of action, and pivot more effectively as the situation evolves.”
Beyond this, Singapore will also need to strengthen its resilience as a nation, he said.
This includes building up additional redundancies and buffers to fall back on during a crisis as well as being able to marshal existing assets and resources quickly.
Where possible, he said, the government will design facilities to be multi-use, so they can be re-purposed or re-deployed during a crisis.
Mr Wong also highlighted the importance of Singapore’s financial reserves, adding that it was a “crucial” resource that enabled the government to respond effectively and bounce back quickly in this pandemic.
“It shielded our economy and our people from the harshest impact of the pandemic. It remains our best safeguard in any crisis,” he said.
“It is therefore our duty to ensure that the reserves are used prudently and judiciously, so that future generations can continue to benefit from it.”
The White Paper, published on Mar 8, drew on a review conducted by former head of civil service Peter Ho, which included interviews with ministers and civil servants.
It also included findings of reviews by various government agencies and perspectives from the people and private sectors.
The white paper identified six areas where the Government could have done better such as its handling of the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, its mask wearing policy early in the pandemic, border measures, contact tracing and the transition to endemic COVID-19.
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Wong acknowledged that there were areas where the government could have done better, adding that its response to COVID-19 was “by no means perfect”.
“We have been forthright and transparent about this, so that we can learn from our experiences,” he said.
“The point is not to look back and critique the past with 20/20 hindsight, but to unpack how and why certain decisions were made at those points, what assumptions were held then, which considerations should have been weighed differently, and how we can do better the next time.”
“Throughout the last three years, we had to continually make such tough calls, in the midst of great uncertainty and ambiguity – often without an established playbook to guide us, nor the luxury to wait and see,” he said.
“We didn’t get every call right. We regret the inconveniences and frustrations caused to Singaporeans and everyone in Singapore, when this happened,” he added.
“At the same time we are grateful for the fortitude and forbearance that everyone had shown, when we had to put in place tough measures, and also when there were shortcomings and errors in our policies and implementations.”
During his speech, Mr Wong also paid tribute to those who contributed to the fight against COVID-19 including workers and unions, public officers, healthcare workers and frontliners.
Addressing a small contingent representing them, Mr Wong thanked them for their selflessness, dedication and service, prompting a standing ovation from Members of Parliament.
“Your dedication helped Singapore to keep going through unprecedented and uncertain times.”
“Your acts of duty, sacrifice and care for fellow Singaporeans uplifted our spirits, boosted our confidence, and kept all of us safe.”
Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Wong also met with the contingent of COVID-19 frontliners at Parliament House.
“Our healthcare workers and frontliners led the fight and bore the brunt of this global crisis. Many other essential personnel worked throughout our society,” Mr Lee wrote on Facebook.
“They are a huge reason why we emerged from the pandemic stronger and more united,” he added.
The white paper debate in Parliament also allowed the House to “put on record our appreciation for all who contributed to our multi-year fight against COVID-19”, said Mr Lee.
Mr Wong said, also in a Facebook post, that the Parliament session was to learn from experiences over the past three years and to be better prepared for future pandemics.
“For me, the most important lesson is this: We are stronger when we stand and work together,” he wrote.