We did not get every call right but the key was to keep on learning and improving: PM Lee on COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic had severely tested the Government in multiple ways, PM Lee said. The Government did not get every call right but the key was to keep on learning and improving, Mr Lee said. 

There are 4 key lessons from this covid experience. 

1. Be prepared to make tough calls

The Government have had to make tough calls without the luxury to wait and see. “We had to judge what was best at that point with incomplete information, and act on that in the fog of war,” PM Lee said.

But the Government had determined right from the start that they would not pay a high price in human lives.

Allowing the virus to burn through the population to reach herd immunity ‘carried a high risk of the virus spreading uncontrollably and causing many deaths, as happened in quite a few countries’, Mr Lee said.

Therefore, the Government aimed for a “Zero-COVID” strategy. It was tough for a small city state without a hinterland and incurred heavy economic and social costs. Our borders were closed and strict measures imposed which included a Circuit Breaker.

“We did everything we could to prevent Singaporeans from being ravaged by the virus, and we kept ourselves safe until we could get everyone protected through vaccines and therapeutics that were then yet to be invented,” PM Lee said. 

Moving away from a Zero-COVID Strategy

A year later when the Delta variant emerged, the Government had to decide how to pivot from the Zero-COVID strategy. The Delta’s infectiousness had made a Zero-COVID strategy less and less tenable.

There was a need to change people’s mindset and to assuage considerable public anxiety when daily cases rose after measures were eased because people had grown accustomed to low daily case counts. Healthcare protocols were also simplified and people had to get  used to recovering from home instead of hospitals. 

2. Looking beyond the present to anticipate and plan ahead

The Government knew that vaccines would be a game changer, and that there would be a scramble for them when they became available, PM Lee said. 

“Long before that, we moved quickly to secure advance commitments for vaccine supplies. We took calculated risks on promising vaccine candidates, across different technologies. This cost us a tidy sum, and we accepted that not every bet would pay off. But we judged this a small price to pay to protect Singaporeans and accelerate our move to the new normal,” said PM Lee.

The Government also made similar judgements with therapeutics. 

“As the team in charge, we need to judge: when we should count every dollar and cent, to make sure we get the best value for money, but also when it is worthwhile paying a bit more to buy insurance and options for the future, to put us in a stronger position when the crisis worsens.”

3. Policy is Implementation

Kudos to the Public Service. They have had to implement and execute well various programmes including the vaccination programme. 

They have had to identify their priorities, and focus on the most urgent ones, break these down into specific tasks, marshal the resources, organise the responses, and get all the agencies to work closely together, to prevent any slip-up in implementation. At the same time, they also had to communicate and engage the stakeholders, and get the message across to the public.

The vaccination programme was more than just about setting vaccination targets. It was about engaging the public through all available communications channels, putting out sound and credible medical advice, facts and information transparently to dispel mistruths and convince the public that the vaccines were safe. 

The success of the vaccination programme illustrates on critical good execution on the ground was. 

Significant progress

PM Lee said that we have made significant progress in our fight against COVID-19. We are getting closer to the finishing line but still, we cannot be sure that we are almost arriving because the virus has surprised us many times and will surely do that again. 

“But overall, we are in a much better position. We can be quietly confident of dealing with whatever may come, and continuing to progress towards the new normal.”

4. TRUST is key

Trust in the Government is key to the Government’s handling of the crisis – trust that the Government has the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, and trust that the Government is competent and will make the right decisions on behalf of Singaporeans.

PM Lee said Singaporeans displayed that trust when they accepted the government’s advice and decisions, and they complied willingly with strict Safe Management Measures (SMMs), and came forward to get vaccinated.

This trust is precious, he said.

“To continue to build and nurture it, we must have a top-notch Public Service, with capable and committed officers. Possessing the right ethos and values, dedicated to serving Singaporeans responsibly and honestly, to the best of their ability. We need first-class minds, able to grasp and tackle complex, inter-connected problems, and come up with creative ideas and workable solutions. But we also need a first-class team, cohesive and mission oriented, focussed single-mindedly on getting the job done,” he said. 

PM Lee was speaking at the Administrative Service Appointment and Promotion Ceremony, 12 April 2022.

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