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Coronavirus

Singapore to shut workplaces for a month in drastic coronavirus shift

Schools will also close in what PM calls a 'decisive move' but not a 'lockdown'

A screen in Singapore’s central business district shows a telecast of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the outbreak of COVID-19 disease.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore on Friday announced it will shut most workplaces and schools for a month, effective next week, calling the more aggressive coronavirus containment measures a "circuit breaker" and avoiding the word "lockdown."

Come Tuesday, businesses will close except for essential services such as supermarkets, hospitals and transport. Starting Wednesday, all schools including universities will shift to full home-based learning until May 4.

These moves mark a major shift in strategy for the city-state. Until now, it had focused on strict border controls, thorough contact tracing of patients as well as extensive "social distancing" campaigns. While it encouraged telecommuting, it sought to keep business as normal as possible.

All the original measures remain in place. But Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told reporters, "All of the workplace activities will have to come to a stop, meaning that everyone will have to work from home and at the work premises, there will be no one."

Unless it is an essential service or has special approval from the government, she added, "it will be an offense to still have operations at the workplace" and violators will face penalties.

Singapore is adopting more stringent measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

More local transmission and new clusters have been identified in recent days, including cases of undetermined origin. As of Friday morning, Singapore had reported 1,049 infections with five deaths.

"We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised message delivered in English, Malay and Mandarin. He used the term "circuit breaker" -- a term for measures stock markets use to curb panic selling -- to describe the policy.

In addition to the sweeping closures, the government will require people to stay home as much as possible and avoid socializing with anyone outside their own household.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong stressed to the media that avoiding the term "lockdown" was a conscious decision.

"Rather than think about using the phrase 'lockdown,' which means different things to different people, let's focus on the specific measures," Wong said.

"With these measures, we are not stopping all work. We are not shutting down the economy. Essential businesses will continue. We are not stopping people from going out if they really need to for work, where it is essential, or to get their food or groceries or even to exercise among their own family members."

Even so, he acknowledged that the "very stringent" measures will further restrict residents' movements.

Prime Minister Lee called the next few weeks "pivotal."

"If we keep our efforts up," Lee said, "within a few weeks we should be able to bring the numbers down, and get into a more sustainable position."

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