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PM Lee warns about not repeating what happened in Hokkaido in his latest Covid-19 address

Hokkaido had put in strict containment measures in late February which worked. However after the state of emergency was lifted, Hokkaido saw a resurgence of coronavirus cases, with 135 new cases reported last week

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Singapore—In his fourth address to the nation concerning the coronavirus crisis on Tuesday (Apr 21), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the country’s circuit breaker restrictions put in place earlier this month have been extended until June 1. Even tighter restrictions will be implemented until May 4, such as reducing further the number of essential personnel in some workplaces such as wet markets, as many Singaporeans have still been going there.

And when the time comes to ease restrictions, PM Lee said that it must be done in steps instead of all at once, to ensure public safety.

He cited the example of New Zealand and Germany, who “believe that they have broken the chain of transmission” but are proceeding with caution, resisting a premature and total lifting of lockdowns that could result in a resurgence of the number of coronavirus infections.

The Prime Minister added, “It has happened in Hokkaido. We should try our best to avoid this.”

Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, had been the first area in Japan to declare a state of emergency due to a high number of Covid-19 cases, which it did in late February. Short of imposing a lockdown, strict containment measures were nevertheless put in place, with schools closed, gatherings cancelled, and people “encouraged” to remain in their homes. At the same time, the contacts of those who had been exposed to the virus were diligently traced and isolated.

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The strategy was so successful that by mid-March, Hokkaido was only seeing one or two new cases per day. And by March 19, the state of emergency was lifted. Schools began again by early April.

However, the country saw a resurgence of coronavirus cases, with 135 new cases reported last week. The new cases were all local transmissions, with no foreigners nor overseas travelers.

And less than one month after the state of emergency was lifted, the island declared a new state of emergency on April 12, as the pace of infections accelerated, with double-digit increases for five straight days. Schools have again been closed until May 6.

Hokkaido Governon Naomichi Suzuki told members of the media “We are facing a crisis of a second wave in the spread of (the coronavirus) infections,” as he appealed to residents to only leave their houses for essential errands.

And while the story of Hokkaido has told the world that early action can mean getting the outbreak under control, Japan has differed with other countries in that it did not perform widespread testing, saying this would be a “waste of resources.” Lately, however, Japan has changed its policy.

According to Professor Kenji Shibuya of King’s College London, “The major lesson to take from Hokkaido is that even if you are successful in the containment the first time around, it’s difficult to isolate and maintain the containment for a long period. Unless you expand the testing capacity, it’s difficult to identify community transmission and hospital transmission.”

Hokkaido, which is dependent on tourism, has already suffered heavy economic losses from the coronavirus outbreak.—/TISG

Read related: PM Lee: Circuit breaker extended to June 1

PM Lee: Circuit breaker extended to June 1

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