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.

BTO projects to be among first to restart after circuit breaker
Also on priority list are projects that are critical and time-sensitive, or cannot be left idle for too long
By Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

Build-To-Order (BTO) flats may be among the projects to be prioritised as the construction sector gradually resumes work from June 2, after having ground nearly to a halt during circuit breaker measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said at a press conference yesterday that he understands people are anxious about the status of their projects. "It could be public housing, it could be private condominiums, it could be a whole range of projects," he said.

On the priority list are projects that cannot be left idle for too long due to safety concerns, as well as critical and time-sensitive projects, such as MRT works and the deep tunnel sewerage system.

But safety considerations remain most important, he stressed. "Even if a project is most meritorious of resuming work, if the contractor is unable to show that all of these safeguards are doable... then they will not be able to resume work, no matter how important that project is."

He added that the Government will consider allowing the restarting of projects not on the approved priority list, but which can show that they have the requisite safeguards in place.

These include putting in place systems to track the health status of every worker daily, ensuring that workers on the same project are staying together in the same accommodation, and providing dedicated transport with safe distancing measures to and from worksites.

Said Mr Wong: "If the contractor comes along and says, 'Look, you have not prioritised me to be at the start of the list, but I am ready because I have a temporary dorm on the worksite that can house this many workers, I am ready with all the precautions that you have required in your checklist, I tick all the boxes and I can show you' - then we will certainly be prepared for that particular contractor to start work as well."

The minister said the authorities will also give priority to projects where renovations had been ongoing and then were suspended because of the circuit breaker. New renovations, however, will have to be considered separately.

The first projects to restart will help the authorities and contractors "iron out all the teething issues on the ground", he said. "At the same time, we are also beefing up our inspection teams on the ground, so that we will be able to inspect and audit all the measures that the contractors are putting in place."

Steps to curb coronavirus transmission will raise construction costs
By Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

The measures to keep COVID-19 transmission low in the construction sector are bound to increase costs for contractors, which they will have to bear in principle.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said at a press conference yesterday that construction costs will rise as a result, and all in Singapore must be prepared to bear them.

As the construction sector prepares to start its engines again from June 2, after the circuit breaker ends on June 1, the authorities aim to implement a regular COVID-19 testing regime for workers at a proposed interval of two weeks.

Mr Wong said the number of workers being tested will depend on the number resuming work, but this will be scaled up progressively.

"We want to test all the workers who will be resuming work and it will be done on a regular basis. This will be a new regulatory requirement on top of all the other safe distancing measures that we have put in place... that contractors will now have to uphold."

Building and Construction Authority chief executive Hugh Lim said the details of the testing regime are still being worked out with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to ensure that its scale and frequency can be fully supported once construction activity resumes.

Though the costs will be borne by employers in principle, he said they and MOH were working out how costs can be spread among the different parties involved.

Tighter measures to ensure workers who return to work remain healthy
They will be housed in separate blocks in dorms, limiting movement and mingling
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

Tighter measures will be in place for blocks in dormitories set aside for healthy migrant workers, to prevent new outbreaks as they return to work, said the authorities yesterday.

The measures are designed to control the movement of people in and out of these areas, limit mingling among workers and make sure any new cases are identified and isolated quickly.

Healthy workers - those who have tested negative or recovered from the coronavirus - will be housed in dormitory blocks where they are physically segregated from the rest on the premises.

The Government yesterday outlined its plan for protecting them as the country gears up for the end of the circuit breaker next month. Some 20,000 foreign workers are expected to be discharged from care facilities by the end of the month and ready to resume work.

The Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Permanent Secretary Aubeck Kam said yesterday that 5,400 beds can be expected in the dedicated blocks by next week. So far, more than 2,000 beds have been set up.

The task force he chairs aims to "recover" dorms or blocks in dorms - making and keeping them virus-free - housing up to 60,000 migrant workers, in the coming weeks. This is about 20 per cent of the dorm population. The task force aims to do the same for all remaining dorms in the coming months, by testing and clearing all the residents.

Ms Chew Ee Tien, director of the Foreign Manpower Unit at MOM, laid out the measures that will be put in place at these dedicated blocks, called blocks for recovered workers, or BRWs.

Dorm operators will have to put in place a system to track all movement in and out of dorms. To reduce the risk of COVID-19 re-emerging, workers entering and leaving these blocks will be "carefully regulated", said Ms Chew.

For a start, residents in BRWs must leave only for work and return to the dorms immediately after.

"At some point, if the number of cases in the dorms is brought down to a very low level, it will be possible to consider allowing residents from BRWs to also leave the dorms for non-work reasons," she said.

Ms Chew said that time spent outside dormitories should be kept to a minimum, and large gatherings avoided as everyone will still need to adhere to the prevailing safe distancing measures.

MOM said yesterday that additional measures will have to be taken to reduce crowd sizes at popular locations where workers tend to gather, with more details to be announced later.

To limit mixing of workers in the designated blocks, dorm operators will also be required to set up barriers and mark out routes from dormitory blocks to common areas and entrances. Within each block, residents have to stay within their levels and rooms, and not move freely to other levels. Workers will be allowed to mingle only with their roommates.

Workers from the same room will be assigned toilets, showers, wash basins, and stoves in communal kitchens for use. Minimarts, canteens and shops can open, but only for contactless ordering and delivery. Pick-up and drop-off timings when workers leave for and return from work must be staggered.

And to ensure any new infections can be quickly detected, dorm residents will be tested regularly, and they are to report their temperature, oxygen level and heart rate daily. Medical support will continue to be provided, Ms Chew said.

The ministry will be working with the Dormitory Association of Singapore, dorm operators, and employers to implement these measures outlined, she said. "In the weeks and months ahead, we must remain vigilant and implement measures so that the workers can work and live in a safe environment."

Close living increases coronavirus transmission risks: Manpower Minister Josephine Teo
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

Changes need to be made to communal living as COVID-19 has shown that it can spread even when hygiene standards are high, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said yesterday.

This is especially so when it is clear that the coronavirus can spread even when symptoms are not obvious and people are in close proximity to one another, like at workplaces, social gatherings or in the same home.

To illustrate her point, the minister, speaking at a virtual press conference, cited COVID-19 clusters being found on luxury cruise ships and aircraft carriers.

Yesterday, her ministry outlined measures to be implemented at designated blocks in dormitories that will house workers who have tested negative or recovered from COVID-19.

Mrs Teo said the aim is to reduce the numbers in dorms, even though it will be a gradual process.

"That is the aim and we will progressively try to do that. We have to be mindful that this does put quite a lot of pressure on the arrangements at the dormitory, so it will take time, and it largely depends on how soon we can identify appropriate places to build up capacity to house the workers who would otherwise have returned to the dormitories."

Mrs Teo said it is much clearer now, as understanding of the virus evolves, that it can spread in many different settings.

The risk of transmission is present at construction sites, social settings from karaoke sessions to shopping, and "within households, within families", said Mrs Teo.

"In particular where many people live together, regardless of the room arrangements or the hygiene standards, the transmission risk is higher," she added.

Pointing to luxury cruise ships and an aircraft carrier, she said such vessels may house at most three people in a room, and their hygiene standards could be considered to be very high.

"But because many people live together... transmission risk becomes higher."

As for dorms, they were designed for communal living, where the workers socialise and interact closely every day, she said.

"Going forward we will have to see how best to make adjustments.

"But in the existing dormitories, we will have to, right now, implement new measures such as setting up facilities to segregate the workers, and also do things like prevent overcrowding at the communal facilities."

Stay-home notice for foreign workers and dependants in construction to end on 18 May 2020
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

The stay-home notice (SHN) that is being served by around 180,000 foreign workers in the construction sector and their dependants will end at 11.59pm on Monday, 18 May.

The notice will not be extended further as the incidence of coronavirus infection among this group of residents is now similar to that of the community at large, said Permanent Secretary for Manpower Aubeck Kam at a virtual press conference yesterday.

But after the stay-home notice is no longer in force, this group will still be subject to circuit breaker measures like everyone else in the community, he added.

"For example, only one person should leave the house at any one time and return immediately after completing errands," said Mr Kam, who chairs the inter-agency task force in charge of migrant worker welfare in dormitories.

This group of workers and their dependants have been put on stay-home notice since April 20. The notice was extended for another 14 days earlier this month as a precautionary measure to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The authorities had implemented this move to curb the number of infected construction work pass holders who are not living in purpose-built dormitories, following a spike in cases among this group of workers a few weeks ago.

The workers who were placed on stay-home notice are work permit and S Pass holders staying in factory-converted dormitories, temporary quarters on construction sites, Housing Board flats and private residential premises like shophouses.

However, all workers in dormitories - including factory-converted dormitories and construction temporary quarters - are currently not allowed to leave their dorms.

The 180,000 workers and their dependants also include a "small percentage" of at least 7,000 healthy workers who were moved to alternative living areas such as military camps, floating hotels and sports halls, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had said previously.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo urged this group of workers to "leave your place of residence only if you absolutely need to, for example to pick up essentials, buy groceries or buy food, and also try to just do it one at a time".

"Don't go out in groups, and keep that outing short," she said.

She acknowledged that some workers may have a strong desire to go out and perform certain tasks, such as remitting money home, as their stay-home notice has been in place for a considerably long period of 28 days.

They can do so if these activities cannot be done digitally, but should remember to keep such outings short and take precautions, she said.

The authorities will also reach out to their employers to remind the workers that the circuit breaker measures still apply to them, and that they have to continue to protect themselves from the coronavirus, she added.

MOM said employers have to keep the ministry updated should there be any change to the registered addresses and mobile phone numbers of their workers.

No big party after 1 June 2020 - just a gradual reopening, says Gan Kim Yong
Community cases low primarily because circuit breaker ensures many stay at home
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

While community cases have been coming down in recent days, Singapore needs to reopen carefully and slowly or chance a large spike in new cases, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong has said.

Mr Gan was asked at a virtual press conference by the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 if the single Singaporean/permanent resident confirmed here yesterday meant Singapore has successfully "flattened the curve" for cases in the community, as the large majority of the 793 cases that the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced yesterday were foreign workers staying in dormitories.

The term refers to the n-shaped epidemic curve, used to visualise when new cases happen and at what speed during a virus outbreak.

A sharp rise in cases results in a steeply inclined curve, while a slower growth in cases spread out over a longer time period creates a moderate plateau.

This is a key goal of public health officials to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed.

While the number of COVID-19 patients being discharged has exceeded new cases in recent days, Mr Gan said it is important to bear in mind that community cases are low today primarily because of circuit breaker measures that have many staying at home.

"We have actually moved a lot of the working environment to home-based telecommuting, and we have actually stopped the bulk of the construction work in Singapore," said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the task force tackling the virus.

"As we restart the economy, as we allow more people to return to work, as we allow more activities to resume, we have to be very careful, because if we are not careful, the number of cases will spike up, and you may have big clusters forming again."

The Government expects that as circuit breaker measures are rolled back and Singapore reopens, the number of cases in the community will rise, he said.

"We hope that if we do it carefully and do it right, the number - even as it goes up - it will continue to go up slowly, and it will continue to remain under control, and we will be able to step up our contact tracing, our quarantine efforts, to minimise the risk of transmission in the community and to minimise the risk of large clusters being formed," he added.

One key test of whether Singapore succeeds in this aspect is not just the number of cases in the community, but how many of them are linked to existing clusters and how many are not, said MOH's director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

"It's all contingent, really, on us continuing to do our bit to not go out unnecessarily, not to mix and have too much close contact even as we start to carry out some of these (social) activities again," said Associate Professor Mak.

Echoing this, Mr Gan called on Singaporeans to remain vigilant, and not to let their guard down simply because the circuit breaker period officially ends on June 1.

Both the Government and the people have "worked very hard over the last few weeks and have maintained very tight circuit breaker measures" to keep the number of cases down, he said, as he urged Singaporeans to continue to cooperate with the authorities and support safe distancing measures so that the Republic can progressively open up with time.

"I know June 1 is approaching very quickly and there's a great expectation from among Singaporeans what will happen after June 1," he said.

"I have to say that we are not going to have a big party after June 1; it is still a very tight situation where we need to continue to impose many of the circuit breaker measures to ensure that our number of cases does not spike up, and we appeal to Singaporeans to bear with us."

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