KUALA LUMPUR, March 27 — Health authorities revealed today that the Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented after a government ministry approved applications from 8,000 staff to travel abroad, including to coronavirus hotspots like Japan, South Korea, and Italy.
Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said these 8,000 civil servants from a ministry, which he did not name, had already purchased plane tickets or other things to go on personal leisure overseas trips, even though at that time, Malaysia had put China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Iran on a travel ban list as they were considered high-risk Covid-19 areas.
According to a 2014 circular by the Chief Secretary to the Government, civil servants are required to get approval from their head of department to travel overseas, even for personal matters. The forms to be filled up include the dates of the planned trip, the country one is planning to visit, address during the trip, and reason for the visit. It is unknown when the unidentified ministry approved the 8,000 staff’s overseas travel applications.
Dr Noor Hisham said the Ministry of Health (MOH) estimated that 32,000 Malaysians related to that ministry alone, assuming that each of the 8,000 staff brought along their spouse and two children, would have gone abroad during the school holiday season.
This, he said, was predicted three weeks ago to lead to a third Covid-19 wave, or “tsunami”, not the unexpected tabligh gathering at Sri Petaling mosque here, which MOH was informed about only on March 9 by Brunei counterparts.
The second coronavirus wave in Malaysia, according to the Health DG, had involved Malaysians who acquired their Covid-19 infections overseas, like a patient who tested positive upon returning to Malaysia after a family trip to Japan.
“So we were afraid that when 32,000 Malaysian tourists who visited Korea, Japan, Italy, and all, returned to Malaysia, then we might get an exponential spike in imported cases,” Dr Noor Hisham told a press conference.
“Noting our prediction at that time, we didn’t have the capacity to isolate 32,000 people. That was only one ministry; what more if more people were involved. We didn’t have the capacity to place them in quarantine centres, for example.
“So, the best method was to implement the MCO.”
Malaysia’s school holiday season was scheduled from March 13 or 14, depending on state, until March 21 or 22, before it was extended to March 31, the original end date of the MCO. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had announced that the MCO would start on March 18.
The nearly one month-long MCO, which has been extended to April 14, has seen all businesses shutter except for essential services. Malaysians and permanent residents are also prohibited from travelling abroad for holidays. Public movements have been restricted under the national partial lockdown, with people generally only allowed to go out for takeaway food, do grocery shopping, or seek medical treatment.
The police and the army have been enforcing the MCO with numerous roadblocks. Two areas in Simpang Renggam, Kluang, Johor, were placed under total lockdown from today until April 9, with 3,570 residents from 650 families not allowed to leave their homes.
Dr Noor Hisham said today that besides the MCO, MOH would increase its public health response towards the Covid-19 outbreak by using AI technology to track high-risk groups, test them, isolate them if they test positive, and treat them.
“We’ll work with other agencies like the police and the army. For the AI technology, we’ll work with MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission), and other ministries.”
Health authorities will also run sanitisation and disinfection activities in public areas.
Malaysia reported 130 new Covid-19 infections today, resulting in a total of 2,161 cases. Three new deaths were reported, pushing the total coronavirus fatalities in the country to 26. The tabligh event at Sri Petaling mosque earlier this month has accounted for over 1,000 Covid-19 cases.
Update at 10.40pm:
Correction note: The sub-head has been amended after it erroneously stated that 32,000 Malaysians had already travelled abroad.