As early as Jan this year, Dr Dale Fisher who is a senior consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases in National University Hospital (NUH) as well as WHO’s chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told the media that wearing masks would give a false sense of security to people. He is also the group director of medicine at the National University Health System (NUHS).
In fact, he is deemed such an expert in Singapore that NUS School of Medicine even featured him in a cartoon series on its website meant to educate Singaporeans not to wear masks if one is well:
No real reason to close schools
In an interview with the media last month, Dr Fisher also said that children appear to be asymptomatic or less likely to be sick from COVID-19 than adults, which was why there was no real reason to close schools.
At the time, the Education Minister Ong Ye Kung was also reluctant to close schools despite seeing an increase in COVID-19 infections in Singapore.
Responding to parents’ concerns about reopening of schools after the 1-week March school holidays, Ong made a post on his Facebook page on 22 March to tell parents why he objected to school closures then.
He first acknowledged the many emails and messages he had received asking him to close schools in view of the COVID-19 outbreak. But he countered by citing scientific evidence, extra precautions, and a desire to reduce disruptions as key considerations in allowing students to resume classes.
“This is the advice of Prof Dale Fisher, Group Director of Medicine at NUHS and Chair of the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network,” Ong revealed.
“Indeed, for the small handful of our students (including those from Institutes of Higher Learning) who were infected, every single one caught it outside of their schools.”
“In this context, it may not be a bad idea for our children to spend the bulk of their day in school, where lessons and activities are arranged such that they mingle only with their classmates, who are less susceptible to the virus than adults. They will be quite a resilient group. If we close schools, many will not stay home, but may run around in the community and mingle with a lot more people, exposing themselves to more risk,” he added.
“In that sense, schools remain safe places for children, especially as they seem to be more resilient against the virus.”
While Ong thought that the young would not spread the virus to others, the UK authorities think otherwise. In fact, UK’s mainstream media The Guardian carried a report on 23 March, the same day that UK closed its schools, saying that children “can be infected with and appear to be able to transmit coronavirus, even if they do not have symptoms”.
Dr Graham Roberts, an honorary consultant pediatrician at the University of Southampton noted, “Many think that children are at low risk and we don’t need to worry about them, and yes, that is true for children who don’t have chronic medical conditions like immuno-deficiencies. What people are forgetting is that children are probably one of the main routes by which this infection is going to spread throughout the community.”
Nevertheless, last Friday (3 Apr), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is Ong’s boss, announced that most workplaces would be closed from Tues (7 Apr) and all schools would likewise be physically closed on Wed (8 Apr). Schools would move to full home-based learning, as Singapore puts in place a “circuit breaker” to preempt escalating coronavirus infections.
Dr Fisher studied in Singapore
In any case, it turns out that Dr Fisher actually studied at the United World College (UWC) in Singapore when he was a teenager. He later went back to Australia to study medicine at the University of Tasmania. He completed most of his specialist training in Sydney. He lived in Sydney for a few years before moving to Darwin to begin his work as a specialist at the Royal Darwin Hospital.
In 2003, he came to Singapore to investigate a potential position at NUH. The timing of his arrival was fortuitous as an infectious disease specialist, as Singapore began to experience SARS outbreak at the time. He took up permanent position at NUS and NUH in 2005. He is currently a Singapore PR but he sent his kids to UWC to study instead of the local schools in Singapore.