Speech by Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health, at the 9th National Security Conference 2013, on 25th Oct 2013

Mr Tony Chew, Chairman of Singapore Business Federation,

Leaders of the business community,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. I am pleased to be here at the National Security Conference for the first time.

Business Continuity Planning Remains Key

2. Over the years, business leaders in our community have leveraged on this platform to forge a meeting of minds on how there can be business continuity even in the face of a national security threat – including infectious disease pandemics which is this year’s focus. This initiative is not only heartening but imperative as there are various threats businesses could face domestically or externally in our highly connected and volatile economy. Vigilance and preparedness are therefore key.

3. Business continuity planning is an integral part of a company's operations. By understanding the risks involved, you can plan ahead to establish business continuity strategies to ensure that core business functions can still continue even when confronted with challenges like employee absenteeism or a public health crisis like a pandemic.

4. Complacency or failure to plan for such contingencies can have substantial business impact. The World Bank estimated that a severe influenza pandemic could cost up to $3 trillion and result in a nearly 5 per cent drop in world GDP1. The EU estimated that a human pandemic could cost Europe up to 180 billion euros in lost economic output due to lost productivity and cutbacks on travel and leisure activities2. There is a clear need for business and financial services to be prepared for such crises to mitigate the impact on their operations.

5. Closer to home, we also got a sense of the potential impact a pandemic could have on our local economy from our experiences with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS in 2003. At the time, our tourism and transport-related industries were severely hit as a result of sharp declines in visitor arrivals, which fell by 67% in a month. Hotel occupancy fell to a low of 20% compared to 75% before SARS hit. Although the SARS outbreak in Singapore only lasted 3 months, the economic impact had been severe3.

6. I am therefore heartened to learn of companies which have taken the initiative in learning from these past experiences and better preparing themselves for future contingencies. Local business Han’s, for instance, have put in place a Flu Pandemic Business Continuity Plan to respond to pandemic threats. Symrise Asia Pacific, a global supplier of fragrances and flavorings, meanwhile, established a Pandemic Flu Outbreak Control Team which will assume the leadership role in ensuring that Symrise can continue to operate with minimised disruption while protecting its employees.

Infectious disease pandemics remain a real threat

7. Part of our national vigilance and preparedness strategy also involves taking stock of realities. Namely, how real is the threat of an infectious disease pandemic in Singapore today? SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 are recent examples of outbreaks of an infectious disease that spread across several continents worldwide.

8. This year, avian influenza A/H7N9 in China and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) made the global headlines as potential pandemics. For now, the H7N9 situation in China has fortunately stabilised due to the stringent control measures implemented in China’s affected provinces. There has not been any outbreak of H7N9 in China since end-May and only five sporadic cases have been reported since then. Fortunately, H7N9 does not appear to be easily transmitted between humans.

9. As for MERS, there continued to be new cases being diagnosed in the Middle East. As of 18 October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed a total of 139 cases of MERS infection, including 60 deaths worldwide.

10. We cannot afford to become complacent. In our highly globalised world, where cities like Singapore are well connected by air travel, the risks of imported cases and subsequent transmission of infectious diseases within the population remain ever present. My Ministry is therefore in close contact with the WHO and our counterparts in communicable diseases internationally, and we will continue to monitor the situation very closely.

Pandemic preparedness and response

11. As the formal structure which coordinates the whole-of-government (WOG) response to national crises in Singapore, the Homefront Crisis Management System (or HCMS) uses the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework to manage pandemic threats. The DORSCON framework was adapted from the alert colour phases that were first used during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Previously, the DORSCON framework comprises five alert phases denoted by colours representing increasing spread of a severe infectious disease. Control measures were hardwired to each alert phase, and this facilitated planning and exercises by various agencies.

12. However, pandemics are, by nature, unpredictable in their timing and potential impact. For instance, in comparison to SARS, the H1N1 pandemic was considered relatively mild and the resulting impact on society was limited.

An evolved DORSCON Framework

13. MOH has since reviewed our DORSCON framework to ensure its continuing relevance and enhanced responsiveness to a variety of pandemic scenarios ranging from a mild disease to the very severe. The revised DORSCON is an evolution from the previous framework in two important ways.

14. Firstly, the colour phases will now refer to the overall public health impact by considering both the disease severity and the spread of a pandemic disease in Singapore. Secondly, the control measures for each DORSCON phase are no longer hard-wired but will be modular, allowing for flexibility and gradation based on MOH’s continual assessment of the risks. In summary, the new DORSCON will now have the added advantage of being applicable to both mild and severe diseases, and will be flexible so that responses can be tailored to the actual situation.

15. I therefore urge business and organisational leaders here to guide and encourage your stakeholders to take reference from this revised DORSCON framework and similarly shift to a flexible and modular approach in your business continuity and pandemic preparedness plans. This ensures alignment to our national approach of continuously updating our risk assessment on the public health impact, and optimising our responses by ramping up or stepping down control measures accordingly.

Role of business leaders in pandemic preparedness

16. As you discuss how you can better mitigate the impact of pandemic threats to business continuity at this Conference, I hope that it will also reinforce the important individual role that companies and its leaders play in partnering the Government’s national security efforts.

17. In the face of a public health situation like outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases, we must be mindful of the welfare and well-being of the people in a business organisation. Even as you work towards maintaining continuity in operations, business and organisational leaders must also be empathetic and have the moral courage to do the right thing given their responsibility of ensuring that their employees and colleagues are always safe and looked after.

Role of the individual and family in pandemic preparedness

18. Our recent commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of SARS was a poignant reminder of this personal inter-connectedness in the face of a national health crisis. Then, the nation had stood united in fighting the first pandemic that we faced in recent memory. The professionalism and courage of our healthcare workers, particularly those we lost to SARS, served as an inspiration to all of us.

19. Our experience from battling SARS also drives home the reality that a pandemic is not just a public health crisis to be managed solely by the Government. Individuals and families, businesses, and communities also have a part to play in our national response. This effective partnership of the Government and the public is a cornerstone in building a society capable of overcoming adversity to emerge resilient and secure.

20. I understand that this is also the key message of the public education campaign that the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) is embarking on. The campaign will raise public awareness and educate all stakeholders on the individual roles they can play in mitigating the impact of a national security threat. This includes how each and every one of us can help reduce the spread of a pandemic by being considerate and doing simple things like adopting socially responsible habits and maintaining high standards of personal hygiene.

Join the conversation

21. As business Ieaders, I urge you to join in this conversation on national preparedness. Your presence today is an affirmation of the public, private and people sectors’ continued commitment towards working hand in hand to build a more robust and resilient Singapore. Such collaboration helped Singapore to overcome the SARS threat of 2003, and saw us through the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. I am therefore confident that whatever the next pandemic threat may be, we can weather it together with the same vigilance and fortitude.

22. I wish all of you an enjoyable and fulfilling learning experience at the 2013 National Security Conference. Thank you.

1 http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTAVIANFLU/Resources/EvaluatingAHIeconomics_2008.pdf
2 http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/publication708_en.pdf
3 http://www.asiabiotech.com/publication/apbn/08/english/preserved-docs/0812/0672_0679.pdf

Visit the Pandemic Preparedness page for more info.

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