Monday, 25 May 2020

At ground zero: First-line defenders at National Centre for Infectious Diseases COVID-19 screening centre

For those manning the COVID-19 screening centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital-National Centre For Infectious Diseases (TTSH-NCID), going eight hours without a loo break, playing agony aunt and facing down their fears are all in a day's work
By Wong Kim Hoh, Deputy Life Editor, The Sunday Times, 24 May 2020

On the first day of Chinese New Year in January, Dr Ang Hou cooked, as he usually did, for his extended family who came to visit.

But his mind was not on the claypot rice he was making - his attention distracted by the constant WhatsApp messages coming through on his phone.

"I'd usually cook more, and make sio bak," he says, referring to Chinese roast pork. "But I was in no mood; in fact, I was a bit antisocial that day," says the head of the emergency department (ED) at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

And understandably so, because he knew he had a big battle on his hands, with a coronavirus causing a disease which the world now knows as COVID-19. The enemy had, at that time, already pummelled Wuhan, bringing the Chinese city to its knees, and was starting to assault other parts of China and the rest of the world.

Two days before, on Jan 23, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Singapore: a 66-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan who flew in from Guangzhou. The following day, two more cases surfaced. Dr Ang knew the numbers would grow. Having experienced SARS and H1N1, the authorities moved fast and turned the National Centre For Infectious Diseases (NCID) - which last year took over the functions of TTSH's former Communicable Disease Centre - into ground zero for Singapore's response to this new virus.

Dr Ang and his ED staff were tasked with setting up and running a daily 24-hour screening centre, with additional manpower support from TTSH.

On top of leading the charge in fighting the virus, they still have to run TTSH's ED, the busiest ED among all the hospitals in Singapore. On a typical day, they handle at least 400 medical emergencies, ranging from heart attacks, strokes and severe infections to accidents and emerging infectious diseases.


Dr Ang and company were chosen to be first-line defenders for a reason. They are professionals used to crisis management, and trained to multitask, work under pressure and remain calm amid chaos.

The ED, after all, is the entry point to other areas of medical care.

Set up in just two days, the screening centre was up and running on Jan 29. Initially designed and equipped to test more than 100 patients a day, it can now accommodate - with the addition of two tents - more than 280 people.

Nearly 400 nurses, allied health workers and operations personnel from other departments in TTSH have been deployed here until the pandemic is over. On the medical side, an extra 51 doctors from the surgery division are also attached here - at any given time - to help the 20 to 25 ED doctors on daily duty.

Before the screening centre was set up, suspected COVID-19 cases were tested in a fever room which could accommodate only 29 people, seated 2m apart.

"It's the nature of the ED to move fast," says Dr Ang who has been working in the department since 2002 and took over as head in 2018.

"We're always on the lookout for things happening in the world, like outbreaks of diseases. So we're on a year-round surveillance for TTSH," says the father of three who first heard of the virus last December while on holiday with his family.

The likelihood of a pandemic like COVID-19 erupting was never in doubt. It was a question of when, not if, says Dr Ang.

"We were setting up the screening centre even before we got the official go-ahead from the Ministry of Health. You don't know the scale but you have to be ready," says the doctor who has donned his personal protective equipment (PPE) each time Singapore was threatened by a virus, from SARS to MERS to H1N1.

As it turned out, COVID-19 is, in more ways than one, a show-stopper. Globally, it has already infected more than five million people and claimed more than 330,00 lives. In comparison, there were only about 8,000 cases of SARS worldwide and 774 deaths.

In Singapore, the number of COVID-19 infections has gone past 30,000, with 23 deaths.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Singapore residents to get improved version of reusable masks from 26 May to 14 June 2020, as part of the third mask collection exercise

New free masks more comfortable, have better filtration
Residents can collect them from CCs, RCs or vending machines from Tuesday, 26 May
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 22 May 2020

Singapore residents can collect new reusable masks from Tuesday, in a third mask distribution exercise that will span three weeks.

The latest distribution of these masks - which are more comfortable to wear and have better filtration qualities - will take place until June 14. The previous two rounds in February and April lasted about a week each.

About six million reusable masks have been prepared for this exercise, similar to the previous one. Collection counters will be set up at 109 community clubs (CCs) and 661 residents' committee centres (RCs) across Singapore.

This time, residents can also pick them up from 24-hour vending machines. About 400 machines will be placed at all CCs for those unable to pick up their free masks from the collection counters.

Residents with a valid identification card can collect one reusable mask each. This includes foreign domestic workers, foreign workers not living in dormitories and international students living in hostels. The Manpower Ministry will distribute masks to foreign workers living in dormitories.

Residents who want to pick up their masks from CCs or RCs can do so only from 10am to 6pm daily during the first week of the collection period, from Tuesday to June 1.

Those who want to collect their masks from vending machines can do so at any time during the three-week period.
This will give everyone access to the masks without having to rush for them, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing told reporters yesterday during a visit to Pek Kio Community Centre.

The vending machines, provided by Temasek Foundation, will be operational from 10am on Tuesday. Each machine has an attached guide comprising three steps on how to collect the masks.

The reusable masks, available in adult and children sizes, use new materials to improve their comfort and resistance to droplets.

They are made of at least three layers of material and have a filtration efficiency of at least 95 per cent, even after 30 washes.

Mr Chan, who is also deputy chairman of the People's Association, said the Government had distributed the first generation of reusable masks last month because they were the "fastest available" at that time.

It was already looking for newer materials to make better masks back then, he added. "So, there was a gap between the first batch of reusable masks, which was a basic cloth material, and the second batch of reusable masks, which is an improved cloth material."

To avoid crowding at the collection points, residents are encouraged to collect the masks on behalf of those who live with them. They have to bring along their household members' identification cards, birth certificates or any government-issued identification with a barcode.

Safe distancing measures and temperature taking will be in place at the collection points. The high-touch areas of the vending machines are treated with a self-disinfecting coating that can last for three months. The machines will be cleaned and restocked regularly.

Priority for children-size masks will be given to those aged 12 years old and below.

Mr Chan said stockpiling masks for future disruptions has to be an ongoing effort.

"Nobody knows how long and how widespread this pandemic will be, and one should never be complacent about any supply lines, including masks," he added.

Friday, 22 May 2020

COVID-19 pandemic hastens Singapore’s Smart Nation drive

With enterprises, institutions, workers, students and families going digital, Singapore is speeding up its embrace of digitalisation
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 21 May 2020

Digitalise or die.

The choice has never been so stark, and the consequence so immediate, as cities come to a standstill amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing governments to shut down offices and schools to reduce transmission risks.

Overnight, many private and public institutions in Singapore have had to think of new ways to continue their operations as tightened safe distancing measures forbid eating out and mandate shutdowns of non-essential businesses.

The swift adoption of digital alternatives - from the rise in cashless payments to the use of messaging and social media tools to promote and sell hawker food - has been nothing short of startling.

In many ways, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation here, giving Singapore's Smart Nation projects a much-needed push.


Physical handling of coins and notes is viewed as a viral risk, spurring many to go for cashless options.

The volume of cash withdrawals and deposits at Singapore's largest bank, DBS Bank, fell by an unprecedented 11 per cent during the three months from January to March compared with the same period last year. The rate of decline in cash transactions had hovered at around 5 per cent yearly since 2017.

Instant digital payment transfers have spiked for all banking customers. The Association of Banks in Singapore said 34.4 million PayNow transactions - instant payments using mobile phone numbers - were made from January to last month, nearly double last year's figure.

PayNow Corporate transaction numbers - payments received by organisations - went up five times from 600,000 to three million in the same timeframe.

Also, half a million migrant workers now have bank accounts.

Employers set up these accounts to pay salaries as physically contacting these workers was not possible after Singapore entered circuit breaker mode on April 7, requiring many businesses and schools to shut down and most people to work and study from home.

NDP 2020: Together, A Stronger Singapore

National Day Parade 2020: Focus on celebrating at home, many segments moved to the heartland and smaller-scale evening show
It will have no central location, fewer participants and be split into two shows
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 21 May 2020

In a nod to these sombre times, this year's National Day Parade (NDP) will do away with large crowds and a central location - for the first time - and drastically reduce participant numbers to stick with COVID-19 guidelines.

But NDP 2020 plans to involve more Singaporeans than ever before by shifting many parade segments into the heartland and handing out about 1.2 million funpacks to all local households.

Brigadier-General Frederick Choo, chairman of this year's NDP executive committee, said during a virtual media briefing yesterday: "This year's NDP will be the first of its kind, in a format that Singaporeans have never seen before. For the first time, we will be bringing NDP across the island into every Singaporean home. NDP will look, sound and feel very different from what we are used to."

For the first time, for example, the parade is being split into morning and evening shows and held across multiple locations instead of a central one such as the floating platform in Marina Bay.

Singapore's 55th birthday bash on Aug 9 will be streamed live over television and Internet platforms.

The morning show will start with a nationwide broadcast of the Prime Minister's National Day Message and a "dignified and compact parade" at the Padang, reviewed by the President.

Around 200 participants will be involved in the parade - compared with about 1,800 people last year.

To bring the NDP "into every Singaporean home", the state flag and F-15SG fighter jets will be flown around the island.

The Red Lions free-fall jump will also take place in different locations, paying tribute to front-line workers against COVID-19. Meanwhile, the mobile column will travel through neighbourhoods.

The morning proceedings will be accompanied by flag-raising ceremonies across Singapore during the singing of the National Anthem.

An evening show at The Star Performing Arts Centre in Buona Vista will feature films and performances by Singaporeans, culminating in a fireworks display at over 10 sites across the country. Only 80 to 100 performers will take part - down from 2,600 last year - with safe distancing measures in place.

In between the morning and evening segments, Singaporeans will be able to participate in various virtual and home activities, such as an NDP-themed workout and a family cooking activity.

"Like the past 54 NDPs, NDP 2020 will be an unyielding reminder that Singapore will keep going on. COVID-19 will not deter us, we will continue to celebrate, but differently," said BG Choo, who is commander of the Singapore Army's 3rd Singapore Division.

He added that the health and welfare of participants are of the utmost importance.

No rehearsals have been held so far, though they typically start in March. Rehearsals will begin only after the circuit breaker period ends on June 1.

There will also not be any national education or preview shows this year, BG Choo said.

At the moment, there are no plans to allow spectators to attend either the parade or the evening show. The committee also aims to ensure crowds do not form to watch highlights such as the mobile column.

Unlike previous years, there will not be large numbers of people from the Singapore Soka Association, People's Association or Ministry of Education taking part.

Performers will largely be from the Home Team, Singapore Armed Forces, and Music and Drama Company, and include some local artists.

Asked if there could be a scenario in which this year's NDP would be scrapped, BG Choo said that since the committee started work in July last year, and with the situation developing, its members were determined to have an NDP on Aug 9 "come what may".

"We believe that as long as there is a Singapore, there will be an NDP," he said.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Singapore's COVID-19 circuit breaker ends on 1 June 2020; economy to reopen in three phases

Ministers spell out road map to keep nation safe and restart businesses over next months
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 May 2020

Singapore's circuit breaker will formally end on June 1, as the country gradually restarts its economy in three phases over the next several months.

This will not mean a return to life before the coronavirus, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday, outlining the broad plan for the months ahead.

Singapore will proceed with caution in the first phase, where many existing restrictions will continue. This phase is expected to last at least four weeks.

If all goes well, it will then move into the second transitionary phase, which could spread over several months.

Further easing of measures would follow in the third phase, where a "new normal" will remain until an effective vaccine or treatment is found.

New cases are expected to rise as people gradually resume activities, and stricter measures could be implemented at any point if the situation worsens.

While some may be disappointed that they will not be able to go out freely and socialise at the end of the circuit breaker, the reopening needs to be done carefully, said Mr Wong at a press conference yesterday.

"We have to do this in a careful and calibrated manner as we don't want to risk a flaring up of the virus. And importantly, we do not want to sacrifice the efforts all of us have put into controlling the outbreak," he said.

He added that the Government will continue to support businesses and workers that are unable to open on June 2.

In the first phase, dubbed "safe reopening", about a third of Singapore's workers will be able to resume work at their workplaces, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. The rest will continue to work from home.

"This will allow three-quarters of our economy to resume normal operations," he said.

Priority will be given to critical sectors and businesses that operate in settings with lower transmission risks. Those returning to their workplaces or offices include workers or staff who are required to use machinery or specialised terminals.

Meanwhile, retail stores will stay closed, and there will be no dining in at restaurants, during this period.

Schools will gradually reopen next month and certain healthcare services will resume. Places of worship will also reopen, but only for private worship.

Social gatherings will still be prohibited, although exceptions will be made for people visiting their parents or grandparents. Visits will be limited to one a day, with a maximum of two visitors who should be from the same household.

Singapore will move into the second phase if community transmission rates remain "low and stable" and the dormitory situation remains under control.

In this "safe transition" phase, people will gradually be able to resume more social activities. More businesses will be allowed to reopen, including retail outlets, gyms and fitness studios as well as tuition and enrichment centres.

In this phase, which could last several months, small social gatherings and dining in at food and beverage outlets may be allowed.

The idea is to take the country towards its new normal phase called "safe nation", in which social, cultural, religious and business gatherings are expected to resume. However, limits will be put in place on gathering sizes.

Similarly, places offering services that involve prolonged close contact, such as massages, or with crowds in enclosed spaces, such as cinemas, will reopen only with strict safety management measures in place.

On public transport, commuters will have to wear masks and refrain from talking.

Singapore will also gradually reopen its borders for essential travel. However, this will be carried out separately from the three phases of restarting its economy as the global situation remains volatile.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Construction sector to resume work gradually from 2 June 2020, with strict safe distancing measures

Strict safety guidelines in place to guard against another spike in new virus cases
By Lim Yan Liang and Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

Construction work here will gradually resume from June 2, starting with critical projects, and a comprehensive set of safe management guidelines is in place as Singapore seeks to cautiously get its economy back on track.

To guard against another spike in new cases, workers will not be cross-deployed between projects while also being segregated into different work zones, it was announced yesterday.

Construction work has largely been suspended since COVID-19 circuit breaker measures kicked in on April 7, with only 5 per cent of the sector's workforce - about 20,000 workers - continuing to work on a small number of critical projects, and those that have had to continue for safety reasons.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) expects another 5 per cent of the workforce to resume work gradually, meaning about one-tenth of the usual workforce will be active next month.

There will be "end-to-end precautions" to cover workers - from the dormitories they stay in to transportation to activities at work sites - said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong at a virtual press conference.

One new requirement is for all workers involved in a project to be housed together, no matter who their employer is. Previously, workers from various contractors would likely have stayed in different dorms.

In the dormitories, workers will be prevented from inter-mixing, and communal facilities such as stoves and showers will be assigned to those staying in the same room.

Employers also have to provide dedicated transport between work sites and places of accommodation. In addition, they need to ensure their workers are masked and seated at safe distances, using at most half the seating capacity for open-air vehicles like lorries.

Work sites will also have to deploy technology such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry to ensure tracking and compliance.

The caution in reopening the sector comes as migrant workers make up the bulk of COVID-19 cases here, with transmission in dormitories, at construction work sites and in social settings believed to be the key reason for the rapid spread over the past few weeks.

BCA said yesterday that all works will require its approval before they can restart. Foreign construction workers must be tested before being allowed to return to work, and plans are also being put in place to test workers regularly, at two-week intervals to start.

Because these are "massive changes" to the construction sector here, the Government will select a few projects comprising the estimated 5 per cent of the sector's workforce and work with the contractors and workers involved to put the measures in place, said Mr Wong.

BCA chief executive officer Hugh Lim said the authorities are moving cautiously to observe how the construction sector implements the new safety measures.

"If our industry partners find it difficult to implement (these measures) even on a limited scale, you can imagine that if we expand too quickly there will be breaches," he said. "We do want to avoid a situation where the industry has to stop again on a large scale, after having restarted."

Mr Wong said new regulatory requirements such as a regular testing regime for workers will undoubtedly raise construction costs, but these are necessary for safety reasons.

"I have no doubt that it will mean construction costs in Singapore will be higher because of these regulatory requirements, and all of us have to be prepared to pay this higher cost because we want construction work to be done safely in Singapore henceforth," he said.

Yesterday, 15 May, 793 new cases were reported in Singapore, the bulk of them migrant workers.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

All pre-school staff to take COVID-19 swab test before centres reopen

Tests will be done between 15 and 26 May at four segregated centres in polytechnics
By Jolene Ang and Amelia Teng and Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 May 2020

All pre-school staff will undergo a one-time swab test for COVID-19 starting today, before the centres reopen. The test, which is a precautionary measure, will cover principals, teachers and the carers who look after infants and toddlers.

Cleaners, cooks and relief and new staff starting work next month will also have to undergo the test.

The Early Childhood Development Agency's (ECDA) chief licensing officer Jamie Ang announced the need for swab tests in a circular to operators on Wednesday.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) will conduct the tests for staff between today and May 26 at four swabbing centres located in polytechnics, in areas segregated from the rest of the campus.

In the circular seen by The Straits Times, Ms Ang said that to allow for faster testing, a pooled approach will be used, where swab samples from up to five individuals will be tested in one batch, instead of individually.

The ECDA said that as Singapore looks to gradually resume services safely, testing and monitoring will be stepped up especially among priority groups like seniors and children.

Testing at pre-schools has been prioritised, as staff have close and constant contact with young children in an enclosed setting.

Most staff will be required to do only one swab test, but a small number may have to return for a second individual test if the first batch test is positive, Ms Ang said.

Children will not be tested as evidence indicates they are typically infected by adults, and not by their peers, she added.

The Government will bear the cost of the swab test exercise, given the sizeable number of staff - around 30,000 - that are involved.

Non-anchor operator pre-schools will need to register staff in groups of five for the swab test, while anchor operators are coordinating with the HPB and ECDA to schedule appointments.

Staff are allowed to make their way to the four swabbing centres only via an authorised shuttle bus, which they can take from nearby MRT stations at Woodlands, Tampines West, Dover and Khatib.

Meanwhile, individuals at a higher risk of infection, such as children and staff returning after a stay-home notice period, may have to undergo further testing before returning to pre-school.

A number of pre-schools had to be closed earlier after reporting COVID-19 infections.

Until May 7, the disease had infected 57 children - those aged 16 and younger - in Singapore.

The tests are the latest precautionary measures implemented since January to keep pre-schools safe. Earlier measures include restricting visitors, and tighter and more frequent health checks.

$16 billion in COVID-19 support given out as of May 2020: Indranee Rajah

Help disbursed to Singaporeans, businesses between March and May under three Budgets
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 May 2020

More than $16 billion in COVID-19 government assistance has been given out so far, as Singapore crosses the halfway mark of the circuit breaker period, said Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah.

In a Facebook post yesterday, she said the support was provided between March and this month to Singaporeans and businesses under the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets.

This includes $7 billion under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), where the Government co-funds the first $4,600 of gross monthly wages paid to each local employee. Another $4 billion will be paid out this month.

The Government had earlier announced a total of $63.7 billion in aid under the three COVID-19 support packages, which were rolled out between February and last month.

"Our first priority has been to protect people health-wise against COVID-19 and ensure that those infected, including foreign workers, receive the best possible care to help them recover," said Ms Indranee.

"With economic activities slowing, our other major priority has been to ensure that individuals, families and businesses are supported through this difficult period," she added.

She also thanked companies that returned or donated the financial support received to charity.

Thirty-two companies have returned $35 million worth of JSS payouts to the Government, while others are donating the funds.

The rest of the disbursements include more than $2.5 billion in property and corporate income tax rebates as well as foreign worker levy waivers and rebates; and $2 billion given to individuals and households, including the Solidarity Payment of $600 to all adult Singaporeans, GST Voucher - U-Save and service and conservancy charges rebates.

About $200 million was also given out to around 450,000 Singaporeans under the Temporary Relief Fund. This is a one-off cash payment of $500 for those needing immediate financial help due to the virus outbreak and countermeasures.

Ms Indranee said another $300 million will be paid out this month in the first tranche under the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme. This will benefit more than 100,000 self-employed persons.

While disbursing $16 billion in less than three months is unprecedented, it is necessary to help cushion COVID-19's impact, she added.

"This has been possible due to prudent management of public finances and the strength of our reserves, which have been judiciously and painstakingly built up over the years for a time such as this," she said.

The combined Budgets are expected to draw a historic $21 billion from Singapore's past reserves.

When the circuit breaker period ends on June 1, Singapore will be emerging into a changed world, she added.

"While some of what was done in the past will continue, the way we live and work will inevitably have to change. We will all have to adjust and adapt. The Government will provide the necessary support to enable the transition.

"Now, more than ever, is the time for Government and people to work in partnership as we take on the challenge of rebuilding the economy and strengthening our society. Together, we will emerge stronger."