Wednesday, 6 May 2020

COVID-19 in Singapore: Updates in Parliament on 4 May 2020

Government will look at three factors before lifting circuit breaker: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong

Singapore's healthcare capacity can be expanded for COVID-19 needs: Gan Kim Yong

Social, economic costs carefully weighed before extending COVID-19 circuit breaker, says Lawrence Wong

Govt response to coronavirus outbreak will be reviewed after the crisis, says Lawrence Wong

66 healthcare workers infected but none likely in the course of work

Getting COVID-19 recovery right at foreign worker dorms an 'enormous challenge', says Josephine Teo

About half of dorm operators flout licensing conditions each year, says Josephine Teo

Over 100,000 self-employed to get $1 billion in total by end-May

Almost 600,000 apply for cash grant from COVID-19 Temporary Relief Fund, 4,000 have returned $500 payout

Government has debunked 40 instances of fake news on COVID-19: S Iswaran

Minister warns of marathon battle against coronavirus
No letting guard down even if some circuit breaker curbs are eased next month
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Singapore must dig in for a long battle against the coronavirus outbreak but will consider further easing the circuit breaker measures in a month's time, if the situation improves, Parliament was told yesterday.

"The fight is far from over. This battle against the virus is not a sprint; it is a marathon, and we are not even at the halfway mark," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

He was one of three ministers who delivered statements on Singapore's response to the COVID-19 outbreak yesterday in Parliament, where all MPs donned face masks for the first time.

The ministers stressed that Singapore was not yet out of the woods, though some progress had been made. Mr Wong said: "If you have done a marathon, you will know that the second half is typically harder than the first, so we must expect more challenges ahead."

He added that the Government has taken a calibrated approach rather than imposing a "full lockdown", as there are substantial social and economic costs to keeping everyone at home. "That is why we considered very carefully before we decided to implement the circuit breaker, and later to extend it for a month," he said. "In the end, we decided we had to proceed with this move, so as to break the transmission chain and slow down the spread of the virus."

He stressed that when some circuit breaker measures are eased in the coming weeks, it should not be taken as a signal to go out more.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said circuit breaker measures could be eased further in a month's time if the number of cases in the wider community remains low and those in migrant worker dormitories come clearly under control.

The country also needs to drastically ramp up its capacity to test for the virus, Mr Gan said, adding that there are plans to increase testing capacity to up to 40,000 a day from 8,000 now.

The Government will look at three factors before deciding what to do next, Mr Gan said, adding: "Numbers are important but they are not the only thing."

First, community transmission of the virus must be very low or stopped altogether. Cases among migrant workers in dormitories must also come down, or the country risks a spillover from this group into the wider population.

Next, the authorities will review transmission rates in other countries and the measures being taken there to contain the spread of the virus.

"For any reopening of our borders, we are likely to start small and selectively, and to continue to impose a mix of isolation and test requirements, to protect ourselves from new imported cases leading to community spread," Mr Gan said.

Lastly, Singapore has to put in place a system to help it reopen safely. This involves ramping up the country's testing and contact tracing capacity.

It will be "very difficult" to scale up contact tracing rapidly in the event of large clusters, and technology might hold the key to this.

Mr Gan warned that cases of infection in the community are likely to still emerge, even as the country opens up in a phased manner as the virus is very difficult to eradicate.

"What is key is to keep the number of cases small and reduce the risk of big clusters, through various safeguards and enablers," Mr Gan added. "It will take a while before the COVID-19 outbreak subsides globally, or before a vaccine is available. Thus we will have to adapt to a new way of life and social interactions."

On the economic front, Singapore is holding the line given the $60 billion set aside to save jobs and keep businesses afloat, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

She stressed that housing standards in foreign worker dormitories have been raised over the years. But the Government will have to relook how people interact at home and in their workplaces, and this will include migrant worker dormitories.

"We are still in the heat of battle. We must be focused on bringing the outbreak under control and working out how we can exit from the circuit breaker and resume normal activities safely," Mrs Teo added.

"When this is over, we will reflect and thoroughly look into areas where we could have done better, so that we will be better prepared the next time."

Nationwide COVID-19 testing plan to better detect coronavirus cases without links
Strategy being developed for more extensive community surveillance: Lawrence Wong
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

A nationwide COVID-19 testing strategy is being developed, even as Singapore scales up its testing capacity, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

This will involve more extensive community surveillance to better detect any unlinked cases in the community, he said in a ministerial statement on the virus yesterday.

"We will also prioritise the testing of higher-risk and more vulnerable groups, like residents and staff of nursing homes and welfare homes, as well as healthcare workers that have high touch points with the community.

"And then, we will progressively expand testing to the rest of the essential workforce and the broader community, in line with the expansion of our testing capacity."

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said, in response to Workers' Party chief (WP) Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), that there have been several constraints on Singapore's testing capacity that prevented more widespread testing earlier on.

One constraint was the limited availability of test kits, said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force fighting the coronavirus pandemic with Mr Wong.

Mr Gan said: "We will need to look at how we can source for more test kits, both manufacturing locally as well as procuring internationally, to allow us to have more capacity to do so.

"At the same time, we are also looking at materials (required) for the testing, such as the reagents that will be needed for the extraction of the RNA materials."

He said Singapore is trying its best to scale up its testing capacity from the current 8,000 tests daily to about 40,000 as quickly as possible, but also noted that there is a global shortage of test kits and the materials required to conduct the tests.

"We have to ensure that we have a continued supply and stock of these materials to allow us to continue and sustain this high level of testing," said Mr Gan.

Another constraint lies in the manpower needed to carry out swabbing on patients, as well as for processing, documenting and testing the samples and recording the results, Mr Gan said.

"All this requires laboratory capacity. So there are infrastructure and manpower requirements at every stage of the test."

WP Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked if the Health Ministry is looking into testing sewage for the coronavirus as the authorities in Switzerland and Australia are doing.

He also asked when the ministry expects a vaccine to be ready.

In response, Mr Gan said trials are being conducted here to see if the virus can be detected in sewage.

But there are challenges in doing so, given that any viruses in sewage collected from a large population would be "significantly diluted".

It may be possible to test sewage for the virus in places with high concentrations of infection, said Mr Gan, but he also noted that cases in such settings would likely be detected even without these tests.

"(Sewage testing) is something that we are continuing to study and see whether we can deploy it in a meaningful way," he said.

On the search for a vaccine, the minister said it is "still very early days" even though some progress has been made.

"From here to testing to eventually being approved for use by a population, I think we are still some way off," he said.

"We can't count on the vaccine to solve our immediate challenges of infection cases in the community."

Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan) asked what can be done to help patients who are clinically well but cannot be discharged as they continue to test positive.

In response, Mr Gan said one limitation of the test kits is that they cannot determine if a positive sample contains viable viruses or not.

He said some patients may continue to test positive for months despite not being infectious as they may be carrying only virus "fragments" that are no longer viable.

"We need to think about what we can do to help them so that they can be discharged, go home and go back to normal life if they are no longer infectious," he said.

"This is something we are looking at and discussing with the infectious disease experts community."

Singapore's healthcare capacity can be expanded for COVID-19 needs: Gan Kim Yong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Hospitals have rapidly increased the number of isolation beds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will do the same for intensive care beds if necessary, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

Thousands of beds have also been set up outside hospitals for patients who are only mildly ill, to ensure Singapore retains the capacity to care for the most critical coronavirus cases in hospitals.

"We have planned ahead, created and ramped up many different types of healthcare facilities to support the specific needs of COVID-19 patients," Mr Gan told Parliament in a ministerial statement.

"In addition, our healthcare system has the flexibility to stretch our capacity to respond to increasing demand."

There are nearly 1,500 isolation beds available in hospitals today, up from about 550 in January.

The National Centre for Infectious Diseases has also increased its capacity from around 100 negative pressure isolation beds to more than 500 in the same period.

In addition, public hospitals have postponed non-urgent elective procedures and moved medically stable "long-stayer" patients to step-down care facilities.

Singapore also has around 150 vacant intensive care beds and can quickly bring another 300 on board, Mr Gan added.

At present, 25 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 patients are in intensive care.

"But we are not taking any chances as we must preserve our buffer capacity," he told the House.

Public hospitals have put in place plans to ensure that their infrastructure, equipment, medications and manpower are in place to add another 450 intensive care unit beds by the middle of this month if necessary, he added.

Singapore has also ensured that it has enough ventilators and other medical equipment to support the care of such patients.

More than 10,000 beds have been set up in community care facilities such as the Singapore Expo, and this number is set to double, the minister said.

These facilities typically house patients who have only mild symptoms and do not need extensive medical support.

Bed spaces in community recovery facilities, for patients who are past the 14th day of their illness but still need to be isolated, are also being ramped up.

There are currently around 2,000 community recovery facility beds - some in dormitories and others in army camps. This will go up to more than 10,000 beds by the end of next month.

"As our community recovery facilities increase, we can also free up spaces at the community care facilities," Mr Gan said.

In other countries, healthcare systems have been overwhelmed and death rates among coronavirus patients have soared.

Nominated MP Irene Quay asked if Singapore has an ethical framework to allocate healthcare resources in such a situation.

"We are working hard to avoid getting to this point," Mr Gan replied.

He added that Singaporeans should not be complacent despite the progress made over the past few weeks, as there are still unlinked cases in the community.

Places which report low daily infection numbers, such as China, Hong Kong, South Korea and New Zealand, remain alert for a new wave of infections.

"Hence we must continue to do what we can to keep our cases low, to keep the lid tight, even as we gradually roll back some of our circuit breaker measures," Mr Gan said.

Ministers thank many who have stepped forward in coronavirus battle
By Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

More than 11,000 people have signed up to join the newly formed SG Healthcare Corps in the fight against the coronavirus.

In Parliament yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong thanked those who have stepped forward, saying: "I am heartened by this overwhelming response from Singaporeans."

The corps includes retired or non-practising healthcare staff who have returned to public practice during the pandemic, as well as those without prior healthcare experience, who will receive training in support roles such as performing swab procedures or providing basic care, he said.

"So far, we have matched about 800 corps members to various needs on the ground and they are being progressively deployed," he said.

He added that members of the corps will be remunerated when they are deployed alongside the healthcare workforce.

Those on the front lines, from healthcare workers to contact tracers to public servants, have been working "flat out" for more than three months since the virus hit Singapore, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

He cited the example of Ms Jaime Lim, a deputy director at the Ministry of Manpower, who has gone from being desk-bound to being stationed at a dormitory gazetted as an isolation area, getting used to "foggy face shields, powdery palms from glove wear and facial marks made by masks".

Besides thanking those on the front lines, he also gave nods to the efforts of teachers, who have had to quickly adapt to home-based learning, and those in essential services, such as cleaners, public transport workers and delivery riders.

He added that he found it heartening to see many community ground-up initiatives that are helping vulnerable groups such as migrant workers cope with the circuit breaker.

"Our SGUnited portal saw a sevenfold increase in the total donations in this period compared to the previous year," he observed.

"Thousands of volunteers have also signed up for initiatives ranging from mask distribution, helping with applications for (the) Temporary Relief Fund and appreciating our front-line workers."

Mr Wong said that having a front-row seat to watching "the best of Singapore" at work during the crisis has been a "truly humbling and inspiring experience".

He said: "Everywhere I go, I see people who are tired, but they remain committed and focused on the mission and they are still going all out to get the job done."

66 healthcare workers infected but none likely in the course of work
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

There have been 66 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among healthcare workers in Singapore as of April 26, and evidence suggests they were not infected through their work, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

He told Parliament in a ministerial statement on the coronavirus pandemic that 46 of the infected healthcare personnel worked directly with patients.

Aside from one case of a doctor in a private healthcare institution where a possible link to a COVID-19 patient could not be ruled out, Mr Gan said there is no established evidence to suggest that any of the healthcare workers were infected in the course of their work, and that they likely caught it elsewhere.

"Our healthcare workers have taken an extra level of care at their workplaces to protect themselves and their families," Mr Gan said.

He noted that a recent study by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) also did not detect any past infection among a sample of healthcare workers across various public healthcare institutions.

"Nevertheless, we cannot be complacent. We have reminded our healthcare workers constantly that they should take adequate precaution during their work to protect themselves, their patients as well as their family members," he said.

"In the event that our healthcare workers fall ill, we will ensure that they are well taken care of and our healthcare institutions will provide them with the necessary support."

Taking care of healthcare workers' mental well-being is also important, said Mr Gan.

He noted that the healthcare clusters had mental health support measures in place even before the COVID-19 pandemic, such as counselling clinics, helplines and peer support programmes.

These efforts have since been stepped up, said Mr Gan.

"For example, our institutions have rostered breaks and staff rotations to ensure that healthcare workers have sufficient rest periods in between work days," he said.

Mr Gan added that the healthcare clusters have also been actively working with the Healthcare Services Employees' Union on various initiatives such as the distribution of care packages.

Monetary compensation is another important area, Mr Gan said, though he acknowledged compensation alone is not enough.

He said: "We recognise the invaluable contributions of our workers, and will ensure that they receive due recognition for stepping up during this challenging period."

He said public healthcare workers working on the front line will receive a special bonus, as announced previously by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, and healthcare workers taking on longer or additional shifts during the outbreak are also paid allowances.

Social, economic costs weighed before circuit breaker move, says National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
Decision to implement, extend curbs taken to break virus transmission chain
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Keeping everyone at home to stem the transmission of COVID-19 has substantial social and economic costs, and is likely to disproportionately impact lower-income and vulnerable groups, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

"They are also less likely to be able to telecommute for work. So staying home will clearly affect their incomes and livelihoods. Being isolated at home for long periods is also not good for their health and overall well-being," he noted.

That is why the Government considered very carefully before implementing the circuit breaker and later extending it for a month till June 1, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament yesterday.

While it was a difficult decision to implement and extend the circuit breaker as businesses and workers were already hurting, he said the Government decided to do so to break the transmission chain and slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

From next Tuesday, some gradual easing of the measures will be allowed, such as letting barbers and hairdressers reopen.

But the key circuit breaker measures will largely remain till June 1, said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19.

"I must strongly caution that the easing of some measures in the coming weeks cannot be taken as a signal that we can now take it easy and start to go out more," he said, reiterating that the fight against COVID-19 is far from over.

"The virus can flare up again any time. We cannot afford to slacken. But we must stay vigilant, maintain our discipline, continue to stay home and minimise our contact with others."

Singaporeans should also expect more challenges in the fight against COVID-19, which may require further adjustments in the measures and precautions taken, the minister said.

The Government will also have to quickly adjust risk assessments and measures as it learns more about how the virus is transmitted.

Mr Wong acknowledged that it can be difficult to keep up with all the changes.

"We are dealing with a new virus, and scientists everywhere are discovering more about the virus - even today - and the disease it causes," he said.

He added that the latest evidence and medical advice, and the impact on people, are considered before changes are made.

For instance, the Government updated its guidance on masks as it learnt more about the virus, eventually making it a requirement for everyone to wear masks when they go out. It also calibrated measures, and allowed people to go out to exercise amid the circuit breaker, as there is no local evidence of transmission among people exercising in the open, said Mr Wong.

He noted that people were also not required to wear masks when they exercised, as long as they observed safe distancing.

This measure is in line with what the Czech Republic, one of the first European countries to make mask-wearing mandatory, has done.

Mr Wong noted that some have said that Singapore should not bother with such careful calibration of measures, and that it should have just gone for a "full lockdown".

But countries that imposed lockdowns have implemented varying measures, even if they use the same term, he pointed out.

"What is more important is to understand the specific measures that are needed in our own context and circumstance."

Govt's response to coronavirus outbreak will be reviewed after crisis: Lawrence Wong
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

There will be a comprehensive review of the overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not just in terms of the outbreak in the dormitories, but the entire crisis from start to finish.

This will help the Government learn and improve, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

He was responding to questions from Nominated MPs Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong, who had asked if the Government will appoint a Committee of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the causes of the COVID-19 outbreak among foreign workers in dormitories, identify the responsibility borne by the various stakeholders, and come up with policy reforms, among other things.

The Government has routinely done this each time after a crisis, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament, noting that the lessons learnt from the severe acute respiratory syndrome or Sars outbreak in 2003 had helped a lot when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"But we are now still in the heat of battle," said Mr Wong, adding that the Government should stay focused for now on the urgent priorities ahead - bringing the outbreak under control on the two fronts, in the community and in the migrant worker dormitories.

"When all this is over, we will certainly look back and learn from the experience," said Mr Wong, who gave his assurance that the Government wants to continue taking feedback and suggestions to improve, and review and learn from the COVID-19 experience.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo also said yesterday that when the crisis is over, the Government will reflect and thoroughly look into areas where it could have done better. It will also see how housing standards for migrant workers can be further raised, she added.

Ms Ong later asked for more clarity on whether a COI will be appointed and when this will likely be done.

Mr Wong reiterated that the Government is committed to doing a full review after the crisis, and will announce it as and when it is ready. "The actual nature of (the review), the form of it, the timing of it - clearly, it's not possible to say today when we're still fighting a battle for which we do not know when it will end."

Ms Ong had also asked if the Government would consider issuing an apology to the migrant workers, who have been under lockdown in dormitories "for the sake and safety of Singaporeans".

To this, Mrs Teo said that officers in the inter-agency task force in charge of migrant worker welfare in dormitories interact very closely with the workers on a very regular basis at the dormitories, as well as outside the dormitories.

"I think that what they (the workers) are focused on is how we can help them to handle this present situation, not fall sick, and if they fall sick, how to take care of them... how to ensure that they can send money home. These are the things that they have asked of us. I have not come across one single migrant worker... that has demanded an apology," she said.

About half of dorm operators flout licensing conditions each year, says Manpower Minister Josephine Teo
1,200 inspections, 3,000 probes conducted across different housing types in 2019
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

About 20 purpose-built dormitories for foreign workers breach dormitory licence conditions each year, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said yesterday.

This amounts to nearly half of the 43 such dormitories regulated under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (Feda), which together house some 200,000 workers.

An average of 1,200 employers a year are also punished for providing unacceptable accommodation for their workers, said Mrs Teo.

She was responding to questions from MPs, including Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang), who asked about the virus outbreak among foreign workers.

She told the House that accommodation standards for migrant workers have become better over the years, but acknowledged that further improvements could be made.

The living conditions in these large dormitories have been under scrutiny in recent weeks as the number of workers infected with COVID-19 rises.

"We will see how standards can be raised, but keep in mind there are also older dorms which perhaps might not have reached these standards yet,"said Mrs Teo, after showing MPs pictures of living conditions in newer dormitories.

The minister said that when lapses are found, these must be rectified immediately. Dorm operators can be fined up to $50,000, jailed for up to a year for such offences, or both.

For other housing types, employers can be fined up to $10,000, face a jail term of up to one year, or both, under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

She pointed out that her ministry has about 100 dormitory inspectors who work under the supervision of the Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories, two Deputy Commissioners and eight Assistant Commissioners.

Last year, these officers conducted 1,200 inspections and 3,000 investigations across the different housing types in which foreign workers in Singapore are accommodated.

Apart from the 200,000 workers housed in large dormitories, there are about 95,000 workers living in 1,200 factory-converted dormitories. Most of these workers are from the construction, marine and process sectors.

Another 20,000 workers are housed in temporary quarters on construction sites.

There are also 85,000 work permit and S Pass holders from the construction sector who live in HDB flats, private residential premises, and other sites.

Purpose-built dormitories have to comply with regulations under Feda, which has requirements such as for recreational facilities to be provided, as well as amenities like minimarts and Wi-Fi in common areas, said Mrs Teo.

Smaller accommodation-types not covered under Feda have to comply with regulations under different agencies, she added.

While the COVID-19 situation in large dormitories is "largely stable now", the situation in factory-converted dormitories and quarters on construction sites presents a mixed picture "and (is) taking up much bandwidth".

She told MPs that Singapore has a responsibility to its migrant workers, many of whom have made personal sacrifices to come to work in Singapore and contributed to its development.

"We will do everything within our means to make sure that they too win the fight against COVID-19, and reunite with their families in time to come," she said.

Situation in purpose-built dorms largely stable: Josephine Teo
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

The coronavirus situation in Singapore's 43 purpose-built foreign worker dormitories is "largely stable now", said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.

But the picture is "much more mixed" in the smaller factory-converted dormitories and temporary construction quarters, of which there are over a thousand, she told Parliament in a ministerial statement on the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In many dormitories, there is active case-finding and swab exercises so that we can isolate and treat infected workers, and break transmissions," she said. "Most of the workers are well and those tested positive are on the path to recovery. The full results of these efforts will, however, take time to show."

Mrs Teo said the inter-agency task force set up to support foreign workers and dormitory operators has gone about its work professionally and with a clear focus on workers' well-being.

The first phase of its work was about getting the basics right, by introducing safe distancing in dorms, and testing and moving workers in essential services out of dorms so they can continue to work.

In the second phase, the task force focused on getting medical operations right. Medical teams were deployed to the purpose-built dorms, and on-site isolation facilities were set up.

The task force must now get ready for the next phase, which will be about getting the recovery right, Mrs Teo said. She noted that this will involve building up community recovery facilities and housing recovered workers in suitable accommodation to minimise the risk of recurrent transmissions.

"We must work out a way to allow recovered and uninfected workers to go back to work safely," she said.

This will be an enormous challenge, not just in terms of logistics, she noted, adding that many workers will be rehoused and will have to get used to new friends and habits. Many employers will also have to adjust to their workers being in different locations with new arrangements.

"We will have to develop new strategies to monitor the health of the workers. For example, we plan to issue pulse oximeters and require the worker to take readings regularly," said Mrs Teo. "We will also have to plan for a more sustainable medical support operation. With telemedicine, we can still attend to unwell workers promptly."

The task force is looking after about 400,000 migrant workers, said Mrs Teo.

Outside of dormitories, another concern was that the rate of infection among workers in the construction sector was noticeably higher than that in the general community. This has not tapered off, the minister noted.

She said the Manpower Ministry and Building and Construction Authority, with the support of the Health Ministry, decided to take further precautions by requiring all work permit and S Pass holders in the construction sector, as well as their dependants, to be placed on mandatory stay-home notice for two weeks from April 20.

"Excluding the workers already in dormitories, this requirement put another 100,000 workers out of circulation," Mrs Teo said.

"While they may not be infectious, it is safer to minimise their interactions with each other and the broader community."

Mrs Teo said the stay-home notice requirement was on May 1 extended to four weeks to decisively break the cycle of transmission. It had been scheduled to end yesterday but will now end on May 18.

"In every phase, the situation has demanded a scale and speed of response that is unprecedented," Mrs Teo said. "The task force is keenly aware of its mission. They know it is critical to get things right, and to do it with heart.

"We will fulfil our commitment to the workers and pave the way for work and business to resume safely when conditions allow."

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo shares migrant worker's note of heartfelt thanks
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

A Bangladeshi worker's heartfelt note thanking the Singapore authorities and those helping migrant workers deal with the COVID-19 outbreak was read out in Parliament yesterday by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Mrs Teo had highlighted the worker's gratitude after pointing out efforts by the Government, community groups and companies to help migrant workers here.

The Government has been criticised recently for the quality, quantity and type of food served to workers under lockdown. Several hundred thousand foreign workers have been confined to their dorms or other places of residence as part of efforts to curb the outbreak.

The worker Mrs Teo mentioned is Mr Sozal Mirza, 27, who had posted his message on the Facebook group True Life of Singapore Migrant Workers on April 17.

"I, on behalf of all Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, want to thank the entire Singapore Government. Police, MOM, MOH and every security, every cleaner, every food supplier," he wrote, referring to the Manpower and Health ministries.

The dormitory resident thanked them for providing workers cooped up in dorms with food, daily necessities, masks, hand sanitiser, Wi-Fi and SIM cards, plus medical help.

"And I'm today promising here in public, if I got a chance to do something for Singapore, I will do it (at) any cost, because they are doing their best for me. I will also do my best for them," Mr Mirza wrote.

Mrs Teo said it was "refreshing" to hear what the workers had to say and thanked Mr Mirza for his "heartfelt acknowledgement".

She added: "Yes, there were initial problems with food. Yes, it is very hard to be cooped up in the rooms. And yes, they miss their families and want to go home.

"But listen also to the voices from their hearts."

Steps taken to improve migrant workers' housing standards
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Steps have been taken over the years to raise housing standards for migrant workers, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told the House yesterday in response to concerns from MPs.

In the 1970s to early 1990s, most migrant construction workers here were from Thailand and Malaysia and lived in rented HDB flats or private residential properties, she said.

But as more of such workers from China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India came to Singapore from the early 1990s, the Government allocated land for self-contained dormitories with recreational facilities to be built.

Explaining the thinking behind housing them in communal facilities, she said: "One important consideration was, 'what would a migrant worker want at the end of the work day, if he cannot be with his family?' Well, it is to be with his friends, cook a meal he would like, practise his religious beliefs."

The Government also allowed some factories to convert part of their space to dormitory housing for workers, so they can live close to their work places.

There are now 43 purpose-built dormitories housing some 200,000 workers, and 1,200 factory-converted dormitories with about 95,000 workers.

In 2015, the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act was passed to raise standards of dormitories that accommodate 1,000 or more workers.

For instance, the Act requires operators to provide recreational facilities as well as amenities such as minimarts and Wi-Fi in common areas. "They are also required to have health facilities like sickbays or isolation rooms and draw up contingency plans for quarantine arrangements," Mrs Teo said.

But she noted that environments where people gather in groups now carry the risk of significant COVID-19 transmission, and there is a need to re-look how people interact in homes and at workplaces.

"When this is over, we will reflect and thoroughly look into areas where we could have done better, so that we will be better prepared the next time," she said.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday also flagged the risk of construction work sites "with hundreds of workers coming from multiple dormitories" becoming hubs for transmission of the virus.

"One single infected worker, mild or asymptomatic, can spread the virus to their co-workers at the work site. They, in turn, can bring the infection back to where they live, and also to places they gather with their friends," he said.

To avoid this from happening again, the construction industry will have to fundamentally change how it functions, he said.

A whole suite of measures spanning work sites, worker accommodation and transport, and precautions workers themselves must take, will be needed, said Mr Wong.

Such a rethink would apply to all sectors, he noted. "All firms will need to change their work culture and practices. Life after the circuit breaker will not be a return to status quo ante."

Over 100,000 self-employed people to get $1 billion in total by end-May
More than 16,000 job vacancies also made available, exceeding initial target of 10,000
By Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

The Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme is expected to pay out close to $1 billion in cash to more than 100,000 self-employed people, with the first payment to be made by end-May.

This was among the figures that Manpower Minister Josephine Teo provided in Parliament yesterday, as she gave updates on the various support schemes that have been rolled out amid the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

She said that since the Manpower Ministry (MOM) launched the SGUnited Jobs initiative in March, more than 16,000 immediate job vacancies have been made available - exceeding the initial target of 10,000.

The public sector has partnered the Job Security Council of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), unions and employers to place more than 3,000 people from affected sectors in jobs such as safe distancing ambassadors and hospital care ambassadors.

And Workforce Singapore will ramp up the capacity of professional conversion programmes in sectors that are still hiring, such as security, she added.

Through the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package, employers can get a hiring incentive of 20 per cent salary support for six months, capped at $6,000, for new hires aged 40 and above brought in via an eligible skills training programme.

About 1,800 self-employed people have benefited so far from the Self-Employed Person Training Support Scheme, which is administered by NTUC and provides a $10 hourly training allowance, or $400 for a week-long course.

In response to MPs who had expressed concerns about fresh graduates entering a fraught labour market, Mrs Teo said that the Government has launched the SGUnited Traineeships Programme.

There are now more than 4,000 traineeship opportunities from 280 organisations available through this programme.

Graduates can apply from June 1 onwards.

The Government will fund 80 per cent of monthly training allowances for up to 12 months.

"Our young people are absolutely critical to our future," Mrs Teo said.

"We hope more host companies can come forward to help build up the pool of traineeships and give our young graduates the much-needed opportunities to start their careers."

Mrs Teo said not all employers have been impacted to the same degree, and called on those in better financial shape to use the government support to give their employees a more generous baseline wage.

"Others who are financially stressed and face poor business prospects should be frank with their unions and employees," she said. "They should work out together how to use the government support to help each other get through this period of difficulty."

She stressed: "One thing is clear: Employers should not act unilaterally and put their employees on prolonged no-pay leave or reduced pay, without the employees' consent."

Employees who need help can approach the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management for advisory and mediation services, Mrs Teo said in response to a question from Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan.

The minister said: "Economic conditions will remain challenging for some time. Given the strong budgetary support provided by the Finance Ministry, we are holding the line on the economic front.

"We recognise the many efforts by businesses and workers to adjust to the new situation as it evolves, and help one another weather the storm. As much as we can, MOM will continue to work with our sister agencies to support businesses and protect livelihoods."

Nearly 4,000 people return COVID-19 Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) payouts
By Kok Yufeng, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Close to 4,000 people who received payouts from the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) have since returned the money.

Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sam Tan told Parliament yesterday that his ministry is working closely with the police to investigate fraudulent claims.

He was replying to Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), who asked if there were penalties for applicants who made "wrong declarations", or those who realised their errors and returned the monies.

Reiterating warnings issued by the authorities last month, Mr Tan said abuse of the relief fund is a cheating offence that carries a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine.

"Where individuals returned their cheques or payouts, this will be a mitigating factor in our assessment of fraudulent claims," he added.

As of April 30, when applications for the fund closed, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) received 594,206 applications, with 3,951 individuals returning their payouts.

Last month, MSF said people gave various reasons for doing so.

Some were told they would be laid off or put on no-pay leave, but managed to retain their jobs and salaries, thanks to the Jobs Support Scheme.

There were those who found they had provided wrong information in their applications, and others who decided to return the payout because they wanted it to go to people who needed it more.

Mr Tan said individuals who want to return their cheques or payouts should do so by end-May.

Set up to provide timely financial aid before the start of other assistance schemes, including the COVID-19 Support Grant and Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme, the TRF is for Singapore residents who have lost their jobs or at least 30 per cent of their personal income due to COVID-19.

Eligible applicants are those not on ComCare aid and have a monthly per capita income of $3,100 or less, or gross monthly household income of up to $10,000. The $500 cash grant is for the month of April.

In a written reply to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), who asked for a breakdown of the number of approved claims and fraudulent ones, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said 444,786 applications have been approved as of April 30.

This represents around three-quarters of all who applied.

The main reasons for applications being rejected included applicants not meeting the qualifying criteria of job loss or income loss, or exceeding the qualifying income criteria.

Mr Lee said data on how many ineligible TRF applicants were subsequently provided with aid from ComCare was not readily available.

He added that MSF is investigating all alleged fraudulent TRF applications. "Investigations are ongoing and we do not have a confirmed number of fraudulent cases yet."

About 96% of students took part in full home-based learning
Some 3,300 primary, 700 secondary students returned to school daily for several reasons
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

About 96 per cent of all students took part in the month of full home-based learning, said Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah in Parliament yesterday.

"The few who did not participate were largely on medical leave, and those who did not participate persistently were encouraged to return to school," she said, in response to Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), who asked how schools assessed whether students have the necessary support at home.

During this period of full home-based learning, about 3,300 primary school pupils and 700 secondary school students returned to school daily for several reasons, said Ms Indranee.

Ms Rahayu had also asked if there were requests from parents for students to attend school, which could not be acceded to.

Said Ms Indranee: "Requests from parents for their children to return to school were met, as long as there were genuine needs.

"The challenge has in fact been the opposite, where schools invite the student to come back to school, but the parents were reluctant over various reasons. But schools will continue to try."

Full home-based learning, which started on April 8 and ended yesterday, was implemented in line with Singapore's circuit breaker measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Ms Indranee said schools had also identified a proportion of students who would benefit from returning to school during this period, based on their understanding of the student and his/her family circumstances, parents' requests, and referrals from social workers.

These include students whose parents are in essential services and do not have alternative care-giving arrangements. These students can also access limited services offered by school-based student care centres.

Schools also reached out to students who face significant challenges learning at home, as well as those who require face-to-face support, said Ms Indranee.

"Schools proactively identified these students and encouraged them to return to school, by providing a welcoming environment and additional small-group activities, such as non-contact sports and enrichment modules, while practising safe distancing," she added.

"This has helped them to stay connected and engaged, and maintain a school-going routine."

Another group of students who needed more support were those who lacked digital devices or Internet access at home for learning.

Ms Indranee said that schools have loaned more than 20,000 computing devices and 1,600 Internet-enabling devices to date, with some corporate support.

"The numbers coming back to schools for this purpose have dropped significantly since, to a small group whose parents do not wish to (take up the) loan for personal reasons," she added.

The period of full home-based learning has been a learning process for families as well as schools, said Ms Indranee in response to Ms Rahayu's question on the challenges that parents and teachers had faced.

"Certainly the first week, there was quite a lot of adjustment and learning that had to take place, but a couple weeks on... things have more or less stabilised," said Ms Indranee. "It has gone on much better than we had hoped, but not without challenges."

These challenges include parents learning how to use software while handling their work from home, and supporting multiple children, some with special needs.

"No two children are exactly alike. Some have taken to home-based learning very well. Some others need more offline learning," she said, adding that teachers have tried to maintain contact with parents and find solutions together.

For students who need support beyond lessons, school counsellors and social welfare officers have also reached out to them, through phone or video calls, or e-mails, she said.

The Education Ministry is starting to look at the feedback it has received, she said.

About 40 instances of COVID-19 fake news debunked so far this year
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

About 40 instances of speculation, rumours, scams and outright falsehoods about the coronavirus outbreak have been debunked by government agencies since January, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran yesterday.

The agencies have spared no effort to swiftly put out the facts to dispel confusion and calm anxieties fomented by such falsehoods, he said in Parliament in his reply to Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson).

"The clarifications have been conveyed through media, on government websites, social media and the channel on WhatsApp and Telegram," he added.

The primary focus is to ensure Singaporeans get accurate information in a timely manner, the minister said.

"We have also used the powers under POFMA - the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act - to require purveyors of falsehoods to place factual corrections alongside false claims.

"These actions have been against Singaporeans, here or abroad, as well as some foreign parties and websites," he added.

Mr Iswaran also said some of the actions taken in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis have been a restraining force, as they further curb people from sharing or purveying false information.

While such misinformation still pops up from time to time, he said the Government is well equipped to deal with it.

But the Government is "not going out on the basis of trying to identify who are the purveyors on an ex ante basis", he added.

"What we do is when the false information is brought to our attention, then we take quick action."

The actions range from clarifications and correction orders under POFMA to more serious ones under POFMA, the Miscellaneous Offences Act and the Penal Code.

"Depending on the circumstances of each case and the outcomes of investigation, the public prosecutor will decide if more serious action needs to be taken," he said.

Mr Iswaran stressed that the Government will not hesitate to use the full force of the law against those who deliberately or maliciously spread falsehoods.

Noting that some may have carelessly shared misinformation, he said: "It is of utmost importance, especially at a time of crisis like this, that each and every one of us does the right thing by checking that the messages we receive come from reliable sources, and make the effort to verify a claim or piece of information before sharing it."

Earlier yesterday, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin spoke on the actions the Government had taken against fake messages claiming a "partial lockdown" in Singapore.

He cited, in his reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), the case of a 40-year-old man who allegedly circulated a false message claiming he had "intel" the Government would close all coffee shops and foodcourts, and open supermarkets for only two days a week.

The man urged people to "stock up" on items.

On April 27, the man was charged with communicating a false message under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, he added. The offence carries a jail term of up to three years, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both.

Said Mr Amrin: "The police take a serious view of all reports of falsehoods regarding the COVID-19 situation, including those that claim 'partial lockdowns' as these may cause public alarm."

Parliament: MPs mask up for the first time in Chamber
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

History was made yesterday as MPs masked up for the first Parliament sitting since the wearing of a face mask in public was made mandatory. Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin announced at the start of the sitting that all MPs will wear masks in Parliament House and remove them only while speaking so they can be heard clearly.

The significance of the move taking place on May 4 - Star Wars Day - was not lost on Mr Tan, who said on Facebook that he was masking up in Parliament though it was "not quite Darth Vader's mask".

An accompanying photo in his Facebook post shows, from front to back, the Serjeant-at-Arms shouldering the mace - a symbol of the Speaker's authority - Mr Tan, the Clerk of Parliament and an assistant clerk in a single file, before they entered the Chamber. All four wore face masks.

"Cue the 'Imperial March' and watch my #MotherOfAllLightSabre in front... keep safe distance!!" said Mr Tan, referencing Darth Vader's famous theme song in the Star Wars franchise.

May 4 is celebrated by fans of the franchise across the world following the pun "May the Fourth be with you" on the famous Star Wars line: May the Force be with you.

The new measure enhances safe distancing safeguards introduced in Parliament since March for MPs to be seated farther apart and in the public and press galleries.

Members of the public now observe proceedings via a screening at the auditorium, and members of the media at the press room.

Said Mr Tan: "We stand in solidarity with all Singaporeans in supporting and adhering to the Government's circuit breaker measures as these are adjusted with time, and depending on the prevailing situation."

The uncertainty brought by COVID-19 has shown why it is imperative that the Government prepares for scenarios in which it is impossible or unsafe for MPs to meet at one place to carry out parliamentary businesses, the Speaker added.

The pressing need for this was evident as Leader of the House Grace Fu yesterday introduced the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill under a Certificate of Urgency, allowing it to be debated and passed in a single sitting.

Parliament will debate the amendments today to allow MPs to spread out at different locations while it is in session, and for the House to convene through virtual means, if necessary.

Mr Tan said that as Speaker, he has provided his views and advice on the parliamentary law and procedures to be considered in the drafting of the Bill, and that "the ultimate form and modalities of such continuity arrangements would be looked into once the Bill is passed".

"In tackling the COVID-19 situation, what must remain constant is that we must always be planning and preparing in advance as best as we can," he said.

In this, Singapore will learn from other countries and Parliaments, and implement what works best in the Republic's context, he added. "We must be primed and ready to swiftly respond should such exigencies happen."

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