‘Whatever we tell you is whatever we know’: Gan Kim Yong on the Covid-19 task force’s approach in ST’s new book

SINGAPORE – He may come across as reserved and even media-shy at press conferences, but behind the scenes, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong played a starring role in the formation of the multi-ministry task force (MTF) on Covid-19.

As health minister when a pandemic loomed, it was his idea to assemble a group which has become the face of Singapore’s fight against the Covid-19 virus. It was also Mr Gan who nominated Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as someone he could work well with to be his fellow co-chair.

Together, they helmed Singapore’s pandemic response until May last year, when the new health minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, came on board.

“I’m the new one, the booster after the two primary doses,” said Mr Ong.

Quips like this and other never before revealed details of how Singapore dealt with a still-unfolding crisis are in a new book published by Straits Times Press that chronicles the past two years.

Released on Thursday (Jan 20), In This Together: Singapore’s Covid-19 Story goes behind the scenes to lift the curtain on, among other things, the origins of the task force and the dynamics of how ministers and civil servants worked together to tackle a formidable but invisible foe.

The government machinery swung into action as early as Jan 2, 2020, when news spread of an infectious disease of zoonotic origin occurring in Wuhan, China.

At the Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak chaired a meeting where a decision was taken to ramp up the nation’s surveillance and readiness.

An advisory was dispatched to all doctors to be on the watch for patients from Wuhan who had pneumonia. Temperature screening was set up for visitors arriving at Changi Airport, and Singaporeans, mostly still blissfully unaware, were urged to be vigilant and observe personal hygiene.

Singapore raised its disease outbreak response system condition, or Dorscon, from green to the more serious yellow on Jan 21.

The next day, Mr Gan went to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean asking to form the MTF, with Mr Wong co-chairing it.

Both requests were approved by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, acting for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was then overseas.