Singapore has announced a change of direction in its fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Schools will close and all but essential workplaces are ordered shut from next Tuesday.

The high-tech island nation was one of the first outside China to discover virus infections. It had until recently been seen as a leading example of controlled and panic-free response to the pandemic. But in recent days the number of infections has leaped.

In a TV address, Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that “food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and key banking services will remain open. But most other work premises must close. If the person can work from home, he should do so.”

Schools and colleges must operate with full distance learning from Wednesday, after a one-day a week policy had gone smoothly. Pre-school facilities will be fully closed.

“This circuit breaker will apply for one month, in the first instance,” said Lee.

Lee said that new social distancing rules should mean that people do not mix with others from outside their family from now on. And he said that Singapore had rethought its face mask policy, which previously took the line that masks were only necessary if a person was unwell.

Lee explained the change of tack, which he called a major move,” on a partial loss of control: “We used to see fewer than 10 new cases a day. But in the last two weeks, despite our best efforts, we have routinely had more than 50 new cases daily. Initially, many of the new cases were imported from overseas, mostly returning Singaporeans. Then last week, we began to have more local cases.

“Furthermore, despite our good contact tracing, for nearly half of these cases, we do not know where or from whom the person caught the virus. This suggests that there are more people out there who are infected, but who have not been identified. And they may be passing the virus unknowingly to others.”

On Friday, Singapore announced 65 new cases, and one death. Of the new cases, only nine were people with recent travel history, the other 56 were local. The country has now recorded 1,114 infections and five deaths.

“Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it. This is so that you keep your droplets to yourself….So from this Sunday, the Government will distribute reusable masks to all households.”

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