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Coronavirus

Singapore extends shutdown until June as virus cases top 9,000

Decision means more business pain and more election uncertainty

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explains the decision to extend workplace and school closures on April 21.   © AP

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's shutdown of non-essential workplaces and schools will continue for four weeks longer than planned, until June 1, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Tuesday after another big surge of coronavirus infections.

The extended "circuit breaker" period, as the government calls it, is sure to mean more pain for businesses and casts further doubt on the timing of the city-state's looming general election.

The same day, Singapore confirmed 1,111 new virus cases, bringing the total to 9,125. This marks a huge increase from the total of 1,375 as of April 6, the day before the shutdown period began. The vast majority of the patients are linked to crowded dormitories for migrant workers.

Singapore now has the highest case count in Southeast Asia, though the death toll remains low at 11 -- versus hundreds in Indonesia and the Philippines. The partial business shutdown had been scheduled to end on May 4, but the government has already deemed it necessary to prolong it.

"We want to bring down the community numbers decisively," Lee said in a televised address on Tuesday, explaining the decision.

"We also want to make sure that if any leakage occurs from the dorms to the wider community, we can detect and contain it early, and prevent new clusters from forming and bursting out of control," he added.

Until recently, Singapore had been widely considered a model of effective containment, including border controls and aggressive contact tracing. The current restrictions include an order to stay home as much as possible and wear masks when going out for necessities.

Yet, while Vietnam has reported no new cases for five straight days and South Korea has confirmed fewer than 20 for four days in a row, Singapore is struggling to stop its wave of infections.

Dorms that house 10 or more workers per room are the main problem, but not the only one. There are reportedly cases of community transmission among Singaporeans without known links to previous cases as well.

For businesses -- especially those that are not suited to teleworking -- the shutdown extension is a heavy blow.

The government has already rolled out economic relief packages worth about 60 billion Singapore dollars ($42 billion). In an online news conference on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said the government will also extend some of the relief measures for another month in May, including wage subsidies for severely affected employers.

Last month, the government forecast an economic contraction of 1% to 4% for this year. The outlook may be even grimmer now, with some manufacturing and construction activity frozen, not to mention travel-related businesses.

The election date, meanwhile, is up in the air, though the government must call it by April 2021.

Lee's ruling People's Action Party had appeared to be leaning toward an early election, at least when it was basking in international and local praise of its outbreak response.

Last month it released new electoral boundaries -- a telltale sign that a poll is near. Earlier this month it introduced a bill that sets out special arrangements for holding an election amid the pandemic.

Lee did not mention the election in his speech on Tuesday.

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