SINGAPORE: Employers should “push aggressively” for staff to telecommute to reduce the load on public transport, as part of safe distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (Mar 25).
He said the issue of crowds on public transport could not be looked at in isolation and instead must be considered with other measures, such as those taken at workplaces.
Taken together, buses and trains trips account for more than 7 million trips each day.
It is vital that employers do two things in order to reduce the crowd on public transport, especially during peak hours, said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19.
“One, to get as many of their employees and staff to work from home (as possible) and second, for those who really have to come to your office, put in place staggered hours,” he said.
Mr Wong was responding to Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong, who had asked what distancing measures were being implemented on public transport.
While the public sector is going “all out” on such efforts, more can still be done, he said.
Mr Wong noted that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), as well as others, are reaching out to companies to get them to step up on such efforts.
READ: Public sector adopts telecommuting, split shifts as part of COVID-19 safe distancing measures
MEANING OF STRICTER MEASURES
MPs also wanted to find out what the stricter measures announced on Tuesday meant in different circumstances.
Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh asked if the task force will announce measures so that political parties can be “on the same page”, given that some parties have stepped up their outreach following the release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report.
“Some of these outreach activities can easily lead to the formation of large social gatherings in excess of 10 individuals who are in close proximity to each other,” he said.
“Does the minister not agree that such continued outreach could potentially interfere and contradict the directives of the task force?”
In response, Mr Wong said that the task force is “quite clear” in putting out these measures that they want to restrict any form of activity that brings about congregations of more than 10 people.
Mr Wong added: “That’s a rule or advisory and guideline that we put out to all organisations and all political parties. All political parties in this House, outside of this House, will therefore have to abide by these guidelines and make adjustments to their activities.”
READ: Taxi drivers affected by reduced demand could be temporarily redeployed as ‘transport ambassadors’: Khaw Boon Wan
READ: COVID-19: MPs and political parties implement precautionary measures during community outreach
PENALTIES AND DECISIONS ON CLOSING SCHOOLS
MP for MacPherson SMC Tin Pei Ling asked what would be done to curb behaviour that may pose risk to public health. Her question was prompted by the “recalcitrant” behaviour of a resident in her ward.
“He would line his finger with his saliva and just touch the lift buttons and there will be saliva left behind on the panel,” she said.
She said that while he was caught on surveillance cameras, the National Environment Agency was not able to prosecute him as he was not “spitting”.
Given that there are concerns for the health of other residents who have to share the lift, she asked: “Are we adequately equipped to take action against such very inconsiderate individuals?”
In response, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that she could give the authorities the details and that they will follow up on it. He added that the authorities have sufficient legal powers to go after those whose behaviour endangers the health and safety of the public.
“I would encourage members of the public, if you come across any of these actions that put the public safety or health in danger to let us know and we will go after them. We need everyone to play their part to keep Singapore safe and healthy,” he said.
Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan asked about action taken by schools in the event a staff or student is infected.
“What is the rationale behind decisions for example, if deciding whether a school should be closed for the day for cleaning, or should be closed two weeks?” he asked.
In response, Mr Wong said it depends on that particular incident, the person who is infected, and the contacts that the person may have had with people around him or her.
“This is done through the Ministry of Health team. They go down, they assess, they make a very thorough investigation,” he said.
“If the finding is that there is no exposure at all, either for that individual with other people around the infected person, then there may not be a need for an extensive closure, and then you just close for one or two days make sure everything is disinfected clean, and then you can proceed,” Mr Wong explained.
“If the assessment is that there is a broader range of contacts within that particular environment and potentially more people may be impacted, then they will give the advice to the centres that it is better to close for a longer period of time.”
Noting that the two deaths in Singapore resulted from COVID-19 had involved older patients as well as those with pre-existing conditions, Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim asked if there was a “significant number” of patients who are younger or without such conditions.
While older patients or those with chronic diseases were likely to be more serious cases, Mr Gan noted there were “one or two” patients in intensive care unit (ICU) who were younger.
“Part of the reason is because of their auto immune system overreacting to the disease and therefore causing damage to their organs,” said the health minister, although he noted everyone should take COVID-19 seriously, regardless of age.
“There is always a risk that if you have more people – even young people – getting COVID-19, they pass it on to the old people,” he said.
Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health Dr Chia Shi-lu asked about testing people at the end of their stay-home notice or home quarantine order.
Some concerns have been raised by experts that these people could have developed very mild forms of COVID-19, which were not noticed or picked up, Dr Chia said.
If that happens, the concern is that they could still be carrying the virus at the end of the 14 days or become symptomatic after 14 days, he said.
In response, Mr Gan said that Singapore has a relatively high level of testing, but that testing is targeted.
Testing is “laborious” and requires resources to be put in place, he said. Targeted testing may be done on those who are under quarantine orders or stay-home notice if they have a risk of exposure, he said.
Blanket testing may create many false negatives which may give them a false sense of assurance, he added.