Saturday, 7 March 2020

SG Clean Taskforce formed to raise hygiene standards beyond COVID-19 outbreak

Govt push to boost hygiene levels as coronavirus fight intensifies
New norm in battle entails benchmarks on cleaning public places and new social habits
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2020

An ambitious exercise has been launched to take cleanliness and public hygiene to the next level and to change social norms so that they become Singapore's first line of defence against current and future infection outbreaks.

This means that not only will new benchmarks be put in place to keep public places clean, but people will also be nudged to pick up new habits and give up some old ones to stop the spread of disease.

In addition, new rules later this year will require hawker centres, schools, childcare facilities and eldercare centres to be cleaned at prescribed minimum frequencies, with owners responsible for the cleanliness of their spaces.

The new SG Clean Taskforce, headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, has been set up to raise hygiene standards across the nation.

The wider challenge will be to persuade residents to wash their hands with soap regularly, take their temperature daily and use serving spoons while sharing food.

"We need to step up cleanliness and hygiene, to make this our new norm. This is our best way forward because this is how we can carry on with our lives," Mr Masagos said at a news conference yesterday.

Also speaking on this new norm in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the co-chairmen of the multi-ministry taskforce battling the spread of the virus noted that with COVID-19 now spreading rapidly around the world, Singaporeans would have to brace themselves for the health, social and economic impact this would have.

More cases of the disease could be imported and, as has happened elsewhere, there are likely to be deaths from it here too, warned Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

Further steps to manage the inflow of people might also be needed, while existing border restrictions might be relooked in the light of developments.

But the most immediate way to deal with the situation is for people to help themselves by stepping up efforts to keep their surroundings clean.

Mr Gan said social norms "are in fact the first line of defence, rather than border controls".

"Even if you have restrictions on travel, you still have Singaporeans coming back; you cannot stop them from coming back to Singapore. Therefore, personal hygiene is the most important."

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong added: "We are not helpless in this scenario."

Social and individual responsibility - even through actions which may seem simple - will effectively slow down the spread of the virus.

Current clusters in Singapore have developed from close contact among people, such as at religious or social gatherings.

The stepped-up effort comes on the back of the SG Clean campaign launched on Feb 16 to raise cleanliness and safeguard public health amid the coronavirus outbreak

On its part, the Government is making sure that hygiene standards are up to scratch - that public toilets are clean and dry, and stocked with soap, for instance.

The idea is that the authorities set the standards, and owners of premises such as hawker centres, schools, factories and malls commit to maintaining them.

But individuals, too, must do their bit, Mr Masagos stressed, and make new habits a way of life.

This entails thinking about things differently. For example, pieces of tissue paper should be considered small "biohazards", he pointed out, and people should dispose of these items themselves, rather than leaving them for cleaners. At hawker centres, people are encouraged to eat on their trays so that food drops on trays - not tables.

The effort to change habits is aimed at addressing future outbreaks, too. "SG Clean is not a one-time exercise for COVID-19," said Mr Masagos.

Coronavirus outbreak: Why still so dirty, Singapore?
Diners still leaving dirty dishes and leftovers for workers to clean up
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2020

The perennial question of how clean Singapore is has once again come under the spotlight, with the Government last week emphasising the importance of public hygiene in combating the spread of the coronavirus.

The Republic might have a reputation of being a clean city, but a Sunday Times check at five hawker centres islandwide found that the nation still has some way to go in maintaining it.

Many diners are still leaving their dirty dishes and leftovers on the table for workers to clean up after them.

This, even though a number of customers were observed wiping the tables with hand sanitisers and disposable wipes before sitting down for their meals.

Ms Connie Chan, 49, a hawker at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, said: "Many customers expect a cleaner environment, but it doesn't always mean they will change their habits."

On Friday, the multi-ministry taskforce leading Singapore's battle against the spread of the coronavirus announced the set-up of a new SG Clean Taskforce.

To be headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, the taskforce aims to raise hygiene standards across the country and to change social norms so that they become Singapore's first line of defence against current and future infection outbreaks.

Managers of public spaces, such as the Chinatown Complex Hawker Association, have already stepped up their disinfection of public spaces. For instance, cleaners at the food centre in Smith Street now disinfect the premises once every two hours, up from once a day.

Last month, an SG Clean campaign was launched to raise cleanliness standards and safeguard public health during the corona-virus outbreak, under which hawker centres and food stalls that have met enhanced hygiene and cleaning standards can get a quality mark.

As of Friday, more than 2,200 stalls at hawker centres, markets and coffee shops, as well as 62 hawker centres and coffee shops, had been awarded the quality mark.

In addition to washing their hands frequently and not touching their faces - which health authorities say are key defences against the virus - customers can also help to make the environment cleaner.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that personal hygiene should be the country's first line of defence against the further spread of the virus, adding: "Even if you have restrictions on travel, you still have Singaporeans coming back... therefore, personal hygiene is the most important."

Mr Xu Chang Zu, 48, a cleaner at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, told The Sunday Times that at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, patrons became more considerate and hygienic. But, he added: "They quickly returned to their usual behaviour. Many diners still do not return their trays."

Mr Edward D'Silva, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, said the key to preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as the coronavirus was ensuring that there were fewer sources where the virus could thrive - be it in hawker stalls or in used tableware left behind by customers.

The coronavirus is currently thought to spread mainly through respiratory droplets.

Even pieces of tissue paper should be considered small "biohazards", Mr Masagos said last week, adding that people should dispose of these items themselves, rather than leave them to the cleaners.

Mr Colin Lim, 50, an information technology specialist who was dining at the hawker centre at Bedok Bus Interchange on Friday, agreed that people could be more civic-minded.

He said that since the Sars (severe acute respiratory disease) outbreak in 2003, he would clean the utensils with tissue paper or wash them at nearby sinks if possible.

Mr Lim, who also carries with him a bottle of hand sanitiser to wipe the table, said it was important to practise good personal hygiene. "It's quite upsetting when other customers don't clear the table, and litter or spit on the floor," he added.

Mr D'Silva said hawker centres and other eateries are a good starting point for public hygiene campaigns, since they are spaces that many Singaporeans visit frequently.

He said: "The Public Hygiene Council has for years been urging people to practise personal hygiene habits, including returning their trays. Hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak would be a turning point in helping more Singaporeans realise this."

Additional reporting by Terese Anne Teoh, Valerie Tay and Melissa Yip

Coronavirus outbreak: New cleaning norms for schools, hawker centres
Law to be amended to require such places, and childcare and eldercare facilities are disinfected regularly
By Vanessa Liu, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Amendments to the Environmental Public Health Act will be made this year to lay down mandatory baseline cleaning standards at places such as schools, childcare and eldercare centres, and hawker centres.

Managers of these premises will have to set out an environmental sanitation programme, and follow a regime for proactive and thorough cleaning and disinfection at prescribed minimum frequencies. These include areas away from the public, like bin centres.

The new rules will be progressively implemented from next year, starting with premises with high footfall and higher-risk occupants, said Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) launched the SG Clean initiative last month to raise public hygiene standards amid the coronavirus outbreak, starting with hawker centres.

"SG Clean seeks to turn the current crisis into an opportunity, by uplifting the standards of public hygiene and sustaining them," Dr Khor told Parliament during the debate on her ministry's budget.

"It is to be a whole-of-nation movement to instil a national 'keep clean culture' for the long term, beyond the battle with COVID-19."

Under the scheme, hawker stalls that meet cleanliness requirements get an SG Clean quality mark. Hawker centres are given the mark for meeting hygiene standards in aspects such as toilet cleanliness and pest management.

"Cleanliness and hygiene is a first line of defence against evolving public health threats," Dr Khor said. "We do not know how long COVID-19 will last. We are entering a new situation where enhanced personal hygiene habits and social responsibility have to be an integral part of our lives."

The NEA pointed out that the multiple incidences of gastroenteritis that affected pre-schools in 2018 highlighted the need for improvements to cleaning standards.

It said that as various sectors have different needs, standards and requirements would vary, and NEA will "calibrate the requirements to minimise compliance costs" for the premises' managers.

The Singapore Food Agency has also stepped up efforts on food safety.

Establishments serving vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly must keep retention samples that will be used to assist with investigations in the event of a gastroenteritis outbreak.

Those licensed to provide catering services will also be required to install closed-circuit television cameras in food handling areas.

Dr Khor also announced that about 14,000 hawkers will receive a 50 per cent waiver of their stall rental fees this month. They will get a 25 per cent rental waiver next month, and 25 per cent in May. The one-month rental waiver, with a minimum sum of $200, is expected to help tenants in 114 hawker centres offset the hit from reduced footfall.


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