Presenter (Julia Chatterley): (Playing of a clip from Phua Chu Kang COVID-19 vaccination music video “Get your shot, Steady Pom Pi Pi”). Joining us now is Vivian Balakrishnan. He is Singapore's Foreign Minister. Minister, fantastic to have you on First Move. I bet that is the most unique way you have ever been introduced during an interview.
Minister: Yes, indeed. It is great to see you, Julia.
Julia Chatterley: I watched that (the vaccination music video), and I absolutely loved it. What can I say? Talk to me about plans to get more people vaccinated using this, and other methods of course too.
Minister: Well, it is corny, but it is effective. It certainly got the message out there and got attention.
Julia Chatterley: Now, I mentioned that around two thirds of people (in Singapore) have yet to receive a vaccine. And there has been at least some degree of speculation that perhaps Singapore is looking to use the UK model. Perhaps vaccinate people with one dose and have a bigger gap between the second dose. Is that being considered just to get more people vaccinated quicker?
Minister: Actually, we have already decided to do that. Our key focus now is to roll out vaccination as quickly as possible. In fact, we have just aimed to double the pace of vaccination. As of today, about 38% of all Singaporeans have received the first dose. In terms of receiving two doses, it is about 29%; about a third of our population, which is not bad. The main limiting factor really is the supplies. In terms of our infrastructure to deliver and get jabs into arms, all of that is in place. I am also very glad to say that we do not have significant vaccine hesitancy. You just watched that rather corny video. It is a way of getting people's attention, explaining it in a humorous way. And yet, a very serious message. That this is lifesaving, and this is the way we need to get out of this box that COVID-19 has trapped us in for the last one and a half years.
Julia Chatterley: We certainly all feel it. And I refuse to call it corny by the way, I love that video.
Minister: Great. I will let them know.
Julia Chatterley: Good, thank you. How quickly can you get those supplies? You mentioned that this is not a problem of vaccine hesitancy, this is simply having the supplies available. What can you tell us, and to tell those Singaporeans watching, how quickly can they hope to get either their first dose or perhaps their second in the future?
Minister: Right now, we have actually opened the vaccination programme to all Singaporeans who are 40 and above. Our next step is that we are going to offer vaccinations to our school students – the teenagers. Following which, it will be open season for everyone (eligible adult population) in Singapore. All this is going to happen within the next two months or so. Watch this space, you are going to see a great acceleration. But it is worth taking a step back and to ask why we are in such a hurry. First point is that COVID-19, unfortunately, is a permanent resident in humanity. It is endemic. It is not going to go away, ever. Second point – and this is one which we are getting through in Singapore right now – is that variants will continue to evolve and will continue to challenge us. The only thing in the long term is to make sure that the population has immunity at sufficient levels. There are only two ways to achieve that – you either get infected, in which case there is a real risk of mortality as we have seen in other parts of the world, or vaccination. What we are trying to do right now is to double down on vaccination, keep public education going, make sure facts and not misinformation are available, and then to be able to get on with the next phase of living with this virus, which is never going to go away completely. That is the strategy. The rest of it is execution. It is really about logistics, it is about planning, it is about communicating, it is persuading, reassuring and so on and so forth.
Julia Chatterley: And sometimes it is bad tough decisions, and you have done that in the last 24 hours. You have suspended the “Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble”. You have also, in recent days, made the decision to cancel the World Economic Forum, Davos, being held in August in Singapore. Is this all out of an abundance of caution?
Minister: It is an abundance of caution. But I think it is better to lean on that side, and to maintain credibility, to maintain that reputation for reliability and trust. I cannot overstate the case for maintaining trust. Because if you project, say six months from now – in six months’ time, the United States would have had the majority of your population vaccinated. It would join countries like Israel. Singapore will certainly be in that league as well. The question then, as you open up the global economy, is how travel arrangements will resume. First point I would make with respect here is that we are not going to go back to pre-2020 in the next year, or even two. It is going to take time. Second point is that as countries reach the safer shores post-vaccination, I think you will see some stratification in terms of the travel arrangements that will be possible between countries or areas which are relatively safer. We want to make sure we are in that group. The third point is to understand that this virus is a smart, sneaky virus. The situation can vary, and can fluctuate very rapidly. I do not particularly like bubbles, because if you think about it, by definition, bubbles are fragile; bubbles can expand and collapse very quickly. We need to be ready to accept that these will be the arrangements going forward in the next one or two years. Things will be volatile, and arrangements will always be subject to change.
Julia Chatterley: Minister, in light of everything that you just said, do you still feel confident sending your athletes to the Tokyo Olympics? Clearly, Japan is wrestling with what to do with the Olympics. They are still going ahead at this stage. Do you think a decision needs to be made about, perhaps, postponing again? Perhaps cancelling it? Particularly, given everything you just said and the decisions you are making for your nation and your people.
Minister: Clearly, we will have to see what the situation is like closer to the date. But let me say this – I do have confidence in the Japanese administration. They know what they are doing, and I am sure they will do their best to make sure that if they proceed, all our athletes will be safe. As of now, we are prepared. We will take all the necessary precautions, and obviously, in the case of the Singapore delegation, you know that we will be vaccinated as well. In addition to that, we will take all the other necessary precautions. Mask wearing, social distancing, and all the measures you have to take to make sure you are not in high-risk environments. Precautions can be taken. The point I am trying to make, is that you have got to accept that this will be a world where you need to be flexible. You will have to take a risk-based approach. It cannot be a binary yes or no – it is simple, but that is not the way the world is going to be.
Julia Chatterley: This is our life now. We have to accept it and we have to deal with it, and get on with our lives too. Foreign Minister, I agree. Quick question, because in the last 24 hours, the US administration is launching an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Do you support that investigation?
Minister: Well, let me take a step back. The origin of COVID-19 is of major significance – both scientific and public health. Second point is that we do need all the facts, and on this score, transparency – radical transparency, if need be – would be very helpful. The third point is that we should try to avoid politicising this question. So much of the tragedies and unnecessary suffering of the last one and a half years, frankly, have been because the responses have been politicised. I hope – and speaking as a doctor myself – I hope that these very important scientific and public health questions can be dealt with transparently, openly, fairly, and in a spirit, which adds to human knowledge and makes our world safer, rather than get caught in political polemic. But let us wait and see. Clearly, we are not privy to all the facts yet, and we will have to see where the facts lead us to in due time.
Julia Chatterley: Minister, if we take the politics out of it, and very quickly, is China capable of, and I will quote you, “radical transparency”?
Minister: I hope so. The Chinese administration is a smart administration. Both for their own public health, domestically, as well as their reputation internationally, I am sure they are fully committed to making sure that both they and the rest of the world get to the bottom of this mystery. I would cut them some slack and let us judge on the basis of facts. Let us try to be as impartial, in fact, as scientific as possible. That is what I hope, but only time will tell.
Julia Chatterley: Facts first and science always, Sir. It is always a pleasure to have you on, and please do not forget to thank whoever produced the video. We loved it.
Minister: I will certainly convey that. Take care, Julia. Stay safe.
Julia Chatterley: Thank you. You too. We will speak soon. Thank you.
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