Cautionary Notes on the Relaxation of the MCO

By Wong Chen

On 1st May, the prime minister announced the relaxation of the Movement Control Order (MCO), to take effect on 4th May. This new conditional MCO aims to kick start the economy, with the majority of businesses allowed to operate.

Initially, the original stricter MCO was to prevail until 12th May. This sudden relaxation of the MCO may have been inspired by what some European Union countries are doing in relaxing their own lockdowns. In Germany, where mass testing is done and ventilators are available, the relaxation of its lockdown seems more justified. This decision was done with the full scrutiny of the Bundestag, the German Federal Parliament with state government consultations.

Only time will tell, whether such a sudden policy shift will benefit or hurt the health and economy of the nation. It is at best, a populist policy move with many uncertainties. These uncertainties stem from the lack of public policy transparency and accountability. It was a decision made without Parliamentary scrutiny in terms of the data, budget and implementation effectiveness.

On 27th April, I wrote on my Facebook page that there are some basic health milestones that we must have in place before contemplating relaxing the MCO. These are including but not limited to: (a) Mass and efficient testing capability; (b) good contact tracing ability (including electronic tracking of victims); (c) robust and good health facilities; (d) adequate protection for frontliners; and (e) availability of good and reliable data. What we need is transparency on all the above milestones. Have we met them? What level of preparedness are we at for each and every milestone? Are we at the 30%, 50% or 80% level? These health information and data need to be made available, scrutinised and constructively debated in Parliament.

On the other hand, the economic stress from the lockdown is very real. People need jobs and companies need to survive. Is the government wage support subsidy working in keeping jobs? In the cases of the poor and hungry, the economic issue is absolutely urgent and dire. Are the government aid and food distribution efforts fast, efficient and fair? Again, the government must provide timely data and demonstrate accountability to Parliament.

Finally, a key decider in terms of economics is the fiscal numbers. How much money has the federal government spent and how much more reserves does it have? I asked these questions on 27th April and predicted that if the government is pressed for money, then the MCO will probably be relaxed earlier than later. This has happened. I suspect that the fiscal soundness of the government is severely in question, and this relaxation policy is intended to pass the bulk of the economic custodianship work back to the private sector.

I also cautioned that there is no hard and fast rule to follow on whether to relax or extend a lockdown. Each country has to do its own internal SWOT assessments. Only by merging and analysing health and economic data, can we start to map out an end to the MCO. The fight against Covid-19 is not over. This current relaxation of the MCO is in essence a “testing” phase of the overall fight against Covid-19.

I want to caution all, how we behave in the coming weeks, will be extremely important. If we don’t want to face a return of a stricter MCO in the near future, all of us have to act responsibly and be vigilant at all times. Do not go overboard with outings and celebrations of the new MCO relaxation. Bear in mind that we are probably six to nine months away from a vaccine, and the effectiveness of current treatments, while promising are still at an experimental phase. Therefore social distancing, wearing masks, frequent handwashing and overall cleanliness must still be complied with.

For those operating businesses, do note that a new set of strict social distancing rules will take place at all work places. There is a new set of rules on managing customers coming to work premises that need to be complied with, such as recording of customer contacts, taking temperature before entering premises, and separating customers in the premises. Since there is a lot of information and compliance issues, I would highly advise all business owners to read these carefully and put in practice the new rules and regulations before opening your premises.