Saturday, 21 March 2020

Stricter safe distancing measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19 cases

All events, gatherings with 250 participants or more must be suspended until 30 June 2020

Suspension of activities for seniors extended by 2 weeks until 7 April 2020

Employers strongly advised to facilitate work-from-home wherever possible: MOH
By Lester Wong and Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

Making it clear that it cannot be business as usual, Singapore announced a fresh set of measures to ensure that individuals do not gather around one another in public - and to keep a safe distance apart if they must - to cut down the risk of local COVID-19 transmission.

All events and gatherings with 250 or more people in attendance at any one time must be suspended until June 30, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced yesterday.

Even if the events are smaller, those attending them will have to be placed a safe and sufficient distance apart.

Safe distancing will also be the norm at public areas such as entertainment venues, restaurants, hawker centres and cinemas, where patrons will have to be placed at least 1m apart.

The distance can be achieved by using floor markers in queues or alternate seating. The measures will apply to religious and private gatherings as well.

Meanwhile, the suspension of all social activities for seniors by government agencies will be extended for another two weeks until April 7.

The authorities have also called on employers to get their staff to work via telecommuting or to work from home.

"So, as a default option, all employers should seek to do that," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force to fight the coronavirus.

If employees must go to the office, they must be put on staggered work hours so that they do not go to or leave office at the same time.

The two ministers outlined the different lines of defence that Singapore was forming against the coronavirus as another 40 COVID-19 cases were announced yesterday, 20 March. Singapore's total number of cases has climbed to 385.

Contact tracing was set to be bolstered with a new smartphone app that would potentially help the authorities track those who have been exposed to confirmed coronavirus cases. Using Bluetooth technology, the app can identify people who have been within 2m of one another for 30 minutes.

Self-isolation for those returning to Singapore was another line of defence, as imported cases continued to rise. Of the 40 confirmed cases yesterday, 30 were imported.

Safe distancing, the ministers said, would add to the defences.

Mr Gan said: "Our healthcare professionals are working hard to take care of patients. We don't want to add to their load, and therefore, it is important to add these measures to ensure our healthcare workers have the capacity to look after our patients."

Mr Wong added that the range of safe-distancing measures that were being put in place were fairly stringent and far-reaching, and should lead to a change in outcome from where Singapore was today.

"We cannot continue with business as usual activities," he said.

"With all these measures in place, what do we hope to achieve? We don't want to see crowded venues, we don't want to see packed event halls. We should see more people working from home, ordering takeaway to eat at home. All this means a major change in our daily routines and lives.

"We will be enforcing the rules. It will lead to some inconvenience, but we also need all Singaporeans to cooperate and take responsibility for these changes. And if we are all disciplined about this, it will give us better control and enable us to suppress and slow down the spread of the virus."

Suspension of seniors' social activities to be extended for two more weeks until April 7
By Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

The suspension of all social activities organised by government agencies for seniors will be extended for another two weeks until April 7.

This is to safeguard seniors' well-being amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

All organisers of other activities that involve physical interactions among seniors should also suspend their plans until April 7.

The move is part of a range of stricter social distancing measures announced by Mr Gan.

"Flattening the curve will help our patients continue to get the best care that they can, and a particular group that we are concerned about is our seniors, including myself," said Mr Gan, who is co-chair of a multi-ministry task force to fight the coronavirus.

"In addition to these safe distancing measures, we advise seniors to avoid crowded places."

He noted that according to the World Health Organisation, individuals who are older or have underlying conditions such as heart disease or diabetes have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection.

The suspension applies to all activities organised by community clubs, residents committees, senior activity centres, active ageing hubs, Crest centres, the Health Promotion Board and ActiveSG sport centres.

National Silver Academy courses and volunteer programmes administered by the Council for Third Age have also been suspended for the same duration.

The suspension has been in effect since March 11.

40 new cases here, with 30 imported, 16 patients in Singapore in ICU as of 20 Mar 2020
Remaining 10 cases locally transmitted, with 7 linked to previous cases and 3 unlinked
By Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

Singapore has confirmed 40 new COVID-19 cases, including 30 that are imported, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said yesterday.

Almost all of the imported cases were returning residents and long-term pass holders, and had a travel history to Europe, North America, South-east Asia and other parts of Asia, with the largest number coming from Britain.

Of the remaining 10 cases announced yesterday which were locally transmitted, seven were linked to previous cases, while three were currently unlinked.

This brings the total number of infected patients here to 385.

Of these, almost half - 190 - were imported cases.

The latest local cluster to emerge here involves the Masjid Al-Muttaqin in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6, which now has three cases.

More stringent social distancing measures to reduce local transmission were announced by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday, which complement other efforts such as border control and enhanced hygiene.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) supports the new measures.

Mosques here have been closed since March 13 for cleaning after Singaporeans were infected when they attended a large religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur, and returned to worship in various local mosques.

"In preparing for the opening of the mosques on March 27, Muis has already been putting in place enhanced measures such as temperature taking and contact tracing, as well as incorporating social distancing in religious activities at mosques," said Muis.

MOH said seven more cases have been discharged from hospital, bringing the total number of patients who have recovered to 131.

Of the 254 patients still in hospital, 16 are in critical condition in the intensive care unit.

As of noon yesterday, the ministry said it has identified 7,065 close contacts who have been quarantined.

Of these, 2,437 are currently quarantined, and 4,628 have completed their quarantine.

Businesses in Singapore roll out measures to keep patrons 1 metre apart
They space out tables, place floor markers and limit numbers to keep customers separated
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

Restaurant owners removed tables, while retailers spaced out queueing customers as they geared up yesterday for new safe-distancing requirements.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) announced measures yesterday to reduce the risk of local transmission of the coronavirus, including requiring public venues such as eateries, shops and cinemas to keep patrons at least 1m apart.

Though the measures were to be rolled out progressively from today, preparations were already under way at several businesses.

Casual restaurant chain Collin's moved out around 10 per cent of its tables in its Nex mall outlet, to ensure adequate spacing between groups of diners.

Chinese eatery Soup Restaurant managing director Wong Wei Teck said it has started implementing the 1m safety distance and collecting diners' details for contact tracing at two of its 15 outlets. It intends to implement the measures at all outlets by the end of next week.

"We are a family restaurant, and we frequently get big groups. It can be a little troublesome for customers, but it is safety first," he said.

Bubble tea chain Koi's operations project manager Lim Zhi Liang said that at outlets with self-order touchscreen kiosks, staff will space them at least 1m apart and disinfect the touchscreens every 15 to 30 minutes. Floor markers will be rolled out across all 57 outlets over the next few days.

Over at Zouk in Clarke Quay, the nightspot is limiting the capacity in each of its four venues - Zouk main room, Capital, Phuture and Redtail - to 250 people each, including staff. Guest information will also be collected for contact tracing.

Mr Seah Kian Peng, group chief executive of FairPrice Group, said 1m floor markers at checkout counters and storewide announcements every 30 minutes to remind customers to space themselves would be progressively implemented at all 148 FairPrice supermarket outlets.

He said, however, that there are no plans at the moment to limit the number of shoppers in stores.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) and town councils are also in the process of marking out seats at hawker centres to guide patrons on how to practise safe distancing.

To help businesses comply with the new requirements, Enterprise Singapore, the NEA, the Singapore Food Agency and the Singapore Tourism Board issued two joint advisories yesterday with steps that companies can take.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat, who visited some businesses in Nex yesterday that were putting safe-distancing precautions in place, said the effectiveness of the measures required everyone's cooperation.

"The (floor) markers may be there, but the public must also get used to making some of these adjustments," said Mr Chee.

Most of the shoppers The Straits Times spoke to welcomed the moves.

Housewife Jennifer Foo, 47, who was shopping at Nex's FairPrice with her daughter, said: "It is a good thing that even supermarkets and shops are being more strict during this time. It will make people more vigilant and more conscious about their personal hygiene."

Ministry of Manpower urges firms to impose leave of absence on employees who returned from overseas between March 14 and 20
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has urged companies to impose a leave of absence (LOA) on employees who returned from overseas between March 14 and yesterday, before a mandatory stay-home requirement for all those entering Singapore kicked in.

This comes amid a surge in imported cases of COVID-19 in the past week, as the virus spread to more than 180 countries and territories.

In a statement yesterday, MOM said employers which place their staff on voluntary LOA will be able to claim daily support under a programme aimed at helping companies affected by the leave requirements during the outbreak.

MOM's initiative follows a mandatory LOA imposed recently by schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Students, teachers and school staff who returned from overseas between March 14 and yesterday will have to remain at home for 14 days from their date of return, and can leave home only to buy daily necessities or attend to important personal matters.

Even stricter measures kicked in yesterday, 20 March, from 11.59pm, with all those arriving in Singapore, including Singaporeans, being issued a 14-day stay-home notice.

This means they will not be able to leave their homes for the entire 14-day period.

In encouraging companies to impose the LOA, MOM said: "The Government recognises that many parents have been affected by this national measure due to the need to provide care for their children during this period."

"At the same time, it is a useful precautionary measure for people who have travelled recently to stay away from the workplace to prevent further transmission."

While some employers have already put in place similar measures, those which have not are encouraged to do so and to "provide additional paid leave to the employees, if work from home is not feasible", considering that the LOA would not have been discussed before their employees travelled.

MOM will allow companies that comply to apply for the $100 daily support under the LOA support programme, subject to certain criteria.

This also applies to those who are self-employed and who have to place themselves on LOA.

The daily support covers only employees who are Singaporeans, permanent residents or work-pass holders. Companies can also claim a levy waiver for their affected work pass holders.

While many companies have been hit hard by the coronavirus and its overall impact on the economy, Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee believes they will impose the voluntary LOA.

"It is not just about manpower capacity, but also the health and safety of the rest of the members of the company, so even though businesses are already facing cost pressures from every angle, I think they will take this advisory very seriously," he said.

"Returning employees account for a small portion of total headcount, plus a lot of SMEs have also put in place business continuity plans and flexible working arrangements, so I think they will take this in their stride."

Mr Johnny Lim, executive director of Teambuild Engineering and Construction, which has close to 300 employees, said his company had already encouraged its staff to avoid travelling before MOM's advisory was announced, and would definitely put any returning workers on LOA.

"We already sounded them out and a lot of them are quite mindful and have cancelled their holiday plans," he said.

"It is for the bigger interest of society and also for the business. Most people will take it quite seriously."

Singapore has sufficient healthcare facilities and workers to cope with the current number of COVID-19 patients
Contingency plans, such as using quarantine facilities for mild cases, in place: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2020

Singapore has sufficient healthcare facilities and workers to cope with the current number of COVID-19 patients.

However, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said there are contingency plans should the number of patients rise.

As of yesterday, there were 254 COVID-19 patients in hospital, of whom 16 were in a critical condition needing intensive care.

One option, he said, is to use quarantine facilities for patients who have very mild symptoms and do not require medical care.

These facilities can also be used for patients who would normally have been discharged, but are being kept under observation to make sure that they are no longer shedding the virus.

"We are in the process of getting these facilities ready," he said. "We do not need this capacity yet, but it's better to put them in place ahead of time."

For patients who do need medical care, Mr Gan said public hospitals have wards that can be converted to handle COVID-19 patients. This is part of Singapore's emergency response plans.

They have not been converted yet, he said, as there is currently no need for this additional capacity.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, the director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), said some preparations are under way to open up additional isolation rooms and wards, as well as intensive care unit beds "to allow us to have sufficient capacity and capability if the time comes when we have to cater to increased numbers of COVID-19 cases".

He added that the ministry is also looking at redeploying manpower "from one part of the healthcare system to another, just to make sure we have adequate support staff ready".

All public hospitals have also been reducing the number of non-urgent operations and other treatments since January to free up capacity for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients.

Prof Mak added that the MOH is also exploring working with the private healthcare sector. There is already a good relationship between the public and private sectors with past collaborations, he said.

The Straits Times understands that MOH officials had gone to Parkway East Hospital earlier this week to check if the facilities there can be used at a pinch.

But the ward they looked at was next to a maternity ward, which raised concerns with obstetricians at the hospital that pregnant mothers may be put at risk.

Mr Gan appealed to people to take social distancing seriously in order to minimise the spread of the virus within the country.

He said: "Help us keep the number (of COVID-19 patients) to as few as possible, and this will help us manage."

Ministry of Health - Updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) Local Situation 2019 - COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) situation in Singapore

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