Saturday, 9 May 2020

Life will not go back to normal after COVID-19 circuit breaker ends on 1 June 2020: Lawrence Wong

All staff, residents at homes for the elderly to be tested for COVID-19

Vulnerable seniors being supported during circuit breaker

Public urged not to rush out when measures ease on 12 May

40,000 daily tests have to be done in strategic, coordinated way

Clearing smaller dorms of coronavirus will take time

Ministry of Manpower takes 228 companies, work pass holders to task for flouting circuit breaker rules, stay-home notices

Contact tracing dongle among options being explored to boost tracking

Coronavirus curbs won't all be lifted after 1 June 2020, says Lawrence Wong
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

Life will not go back to normal immediately after June 1, when Singapore's COVID-19 circuit breaker period comes to an end, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong during a virtual press conference yesterday.

While the Government will continue to monitor and assess the situation in the coming days and weeks as it decides what should be done after the circuit breaker, he stated categorically that there was no scenario where normalcy returns next month.

"Whatever the decision, whatever happens in the coming days or weeks, it is clearly not going to be the case that after June 1 everything will be lifted, and we will go back to status quo ante."

Rather, Singapore will see a "gradual, calibrated easing", said Mr Wong.

"The baseline protection will have to remain - things like safe distancing measures, the wearing of masks when you go out, or at work; all of these will remain post-June 1.

"Beyond these baseline measures, the extent to which we can do more reopening of workplaces - that's something that we will have to consider."

The country's stricter social distancing measures, which the Government calls a circuit breaker, came into force on April 7 and were to last till May 4. It was later extended to June 1.

Some additional precautions will be in place after June 1, including measures involving the use of technology like digital check-in system SafeEntry at workplaces, an enhanced TraceTogether app, and possibly a dongle that people can carry around to help with contact tracing.

Testing for COVID-19 begins for all residents, staff at homes for elderly
All 9,000 staff in nursing homes tested with all except one testing negative
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

Coronavirus testing has started for all 30,000 staff and residents in Singapore's residential care homes for the elderly and is expected to be finished by early next month, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said yesterday.

Repeat tests will be carried out at about two-week intervals as a precautionary measure, although those who show acute respiratory symptoms will be tested immediately.

Singapore has not seen widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities for the elderly. Yesterday, 8 May, 768 new cases were reported - migrant workers in dormitories accounted for most of them - taking the total count to 21,707.

Still, these measures may keep seniors safe as overseas experience has shown that outbreaks in residential care homes for the elderly can be catastrophic, said MOH.

People aged 60 and above are most vulnerable to the disease, with all but one of Singapore's 20 deaths occurring in this age group. The only other person who died was 58.

Almost one in six seniors here also developed severe symptoms and required intensive care, compared with just 0.2 per cent of younger patients.

"It is therefore critical that we make extra efforts to protect our seniors," Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told reporters. "Even as we cautiously lift some circuit breaker measures, we will continue to put in place enhanced safeguards where necessary, especially for vulnerable groups like our seniors."

He added that testing for all 9,000 staff across Singapore's 80 nursing homes has been completed and the testing of 16,000 residents is under way.

All staff have tested negative for the virus to date, with the exception of one employee at Ren Ci nursing home in Ang Mo Kio.

More than 30 residents from the home were subsequently tested for the virus. None tested positive, although their health is still being monitored.

These residents include those who had been in contact with the staff member, as well as those who had acute respiratory symptoms.

"We expect that more cases will be identified within our nursing homes with this extensive testing in progress," Mr Gan said.

Meanwhile, 5,000 residents and staff at other residential homes have also been tested and the results have so far been negative.

If someone tests positive, quarantine protocols will be put in place and the affected area in the home disinfected.

As a precaution, staff in residential care facilities will stay in on-site facilities or move to hotels until the circuit breaker is lifted, if their job involves interacting with residents. Around 3,000 staff are currently in the process of moving into hotels.

Social support is also being extended to seniors, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.

For instance, the Silver Generation Office has been checking in on around 20,000 seniors who have weak family support, to update them on the latest developments and give them the care they need.

Some 450 volunteers are delivering meals and providing financial assistance to seniors, Mr Lee added.

"If you or any other group knows seniors in your neighbourhood who could use a friendly check-in, do reach out to them or let us know," he said.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong also encouraged younger Singaporeans to run errands on behalf of their older relatives or chat with them on the phone. "A physical separation doesn't mean that you have to be emotionally isolated," he said.

Vulnerable seniors being supported during circuit breaker
Social service agencies, volunteer networks continue to provide essential aid: Desmond Lee
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

Seniors in need are continuing to receive help as social service agencies and volunteer networks providing essential aid remain active during the circuit breaker period.

For example, a network of volunteer groups and ground-up movements, coordinated by the National Council of Social Service, has been distributing meals, surgical masks, disinfectants, sanitiser, exercise bands, telecommunications equipment and SIM cards to seniors, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee told a press conference yesterday.

"Through these distributions, the volunteers take the opportunity to guide seniors on the necessary precautions that need to be taken such as frequent hand washing, and check if the seniors need any other assistance such as transport to their medical appointments," he said.

This is being done with minimal movement and interaction of people on the ground, he added.

He said his ministry is also joining other agencies on safe distancing patrols to advise seniors to wear masks and stay home as much as possible.

Officers on these patrols also identify seniors who need help, such as those who have issues preventing them from staying at home, Mr Lee said. "If they have mental health issues, they'll be referred to the relevant agencies for further support, including to the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) for follow-up."

Giving an update on efforts to ensure seniors who live alone do not become socially isolated, Mr Lee said the Silver Generation Office (SGO) has been calling vulnerable seniors to ensure they are informed of developments, and also to check in on their well-being and their needs.

It has reached out to about 20,000 seniors living alone this way and will continue to call regularly to support them, Mr Lee said.

The latest available estimates by the Department of Statistics show that in 2018, there were about 58,000 seniors who live alone.

Mr Lee added that the seniors who were engaged by SGO, including those who have weak social or family support, were receptive.

"Following up from these calls, SGO is working with some 450 public service volunteers to run errands for these seniors who require assistance outside the home during this period, and some 1,200 seniors have requested assistance and are being helped in this way for meal deliveries, financial assistance and befriending services."

Mr Lee said those who need assistance can contact the AIC on 1800-650-6060.

And those who need psychological and emotional support can also call the 24-hour National Care Hotline on 1800-202-6868, he added.

Public urged not to rush out when measures ease on May 12
By Wong Kai Yi, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

Even as barbers, hairdressers and some other businesses prepare to reopen from Tuesday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has urged people not to rush.

"I know some people may not have had a haircut for some time, but there is no need to rush to go out to have a haircut on May 12," he stressed.

There will be lots of time to do what needs to be done, he said, adding that people should pace themselves.

"We should remain vigilant and not take any chances. (The easing of measures on May 12) should not be an opportunity for us to go out more frequently," Mr Wong stressed.

The multi-ministry task force, which the minister is co-chair of, had announced earlier that certain businesses would be allowed to resume operations on Tuesday.

These include all food outlets selling packaged snacks, cakes, confectionery and desserts as well as home-based food businesses and hairdressers, subject to some restrictions.

For example, hairdressers may offer basic haircuts, while dining in remains banned. Restaurants and other eateries have to ensure that they have delivery services.

"The circuit breaker is still in place and we should make the most of the next three weeks and more through the circuit breaker period to bring our community numbers down as much as possible," Mr Wong added.

At the community level, the number of COVID-19 infections being reported every day has been coming down. The average in the past week was about 10 a day, the minister said. The number of unlinked cases has also come down.

"Importantly, if you look at the surveillance programme which we have put in place to test cases in our clinics with prolonged respiratory illness, those cases have also been coming down, which suggests that the number of unlinked cases in our community is lower than it used to be in the recent weeks," Mr Wong said.

For businesses, the minister said that they should similarly be in no rush to reopen and neglect safe management practices which they must first put in place.

Even as some shops are eager to reopen, others are cautious.

Bak kwa brand Lim Chee Guan told The Straits Times that it will reopen its flagship store in New Bridge Road first and monitor the situation before deciding when to reopen the other three outlets.

Housewife Annie Tan, 42, said: "I'm definitely excited that some of the shops are resuming services but it's important to heed the call to not all rush out on the first day.

"My hairdresser has already messaged all her customers to say that even when her shop reopens, services will be by appointment only. If more businesses do the same, the situation should be under control."

Coronavirus testing must be done in coordinated, strategic way: Lawrence Wong
By Wong Kai Yi, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

As Singapore ramps up coronavirus testing to 40,000 a day, it needs to have a strategy and do it in a coordinated fashion, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong yesterday.

"It's not just everyone, raise your hand and then you can apply for a test. It shouldn't be like that," he added in his reply to a reporter at a virtual media conference by the multi-ministry task force for combating the spread of COVID-19.

"The tests have to be allocated to areas of priority," he said, adding that the rate of 40,000 daily tests "is probably ranked as one of the highest rates of testing in the world".

Among the top priorities he cited are nursing homes, front-line medical workers and migrant workers, who he said should be tested on a regular basis partly because they work in large groups.

"You want to be very careful not to have large clusters forming again," he stressed. Migrant workers staying in dormitories form about 85 per cent of total infected cases, which stand at 21,707.

He added: "Testing will be a national resource, which we will apply in a strategic way to ensure that Singapore is safe from the virus."

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, outlined the strategy in his reply to a Bloomberg reporter who asked whether selective testing had not worked out as well as Singapore had planned, and whether the move to mass testing is manageable given the global shortage of test kits.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, in underlining the point, said: "We cannot be testing aimlessly. The key is that... we do so with quite clear purposes in mind."

He reiterated the three purposes of testing that he had set out in Parliament on Monday: first, to find those who are positive; second, to conduct surveillance to understand the overall transmission landscape; and third, to look for those who are negative and allow them to go back to work.

In his reply, Mr Wong also said Singapore has been raising its testing capacity quite significantly.

Daily testing has been ramped up from about 2,900 a day in the initial days to 8,000. In a few weeks, Singapore will have the capability to perform 20,000 daily tests and, eventually, 40,000.

"Even with 40,000 a day for a population the size of Singapore, it's not going to be effective if it is done in an uncoordinated way," he said.

Another group he cited to be allocated test kits are essential workers returning to their workplaces.

Their numbers are set to rise in the coming weeks as circuit breaker measures are gradually loosened and the country prepares for the scheduled end of the circuit breaker period on June 1.

The Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said various strategies will be adopted to meet the needs of different settings. Other types of tests, like serological testing, will be used as well to determine whether people have recovered from the infection and can return safely into the community and the workforce, he added.

Said Mr Gan: "When we test individuals, we need to know what is the purpose of the test, so that we can design our strategy appropriately and the outcome will then be useful for us."

Clearing smaller foreign worker dormitories of coronavirus will take time, says Lawrence Wong
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

The number of foreign workers living in dormitories who test positive for the coronavirus daily continues to be high in part because of an "active and aggressive testing regime" that sees more workers being tested each day, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

"We expect to still see these numbers for a few more weeks before they stabilise, but our strategy is working and we are making progress day by day in clearing these dormitories," he told a press conference yesterday.

While the coronavirus situation in larger purpose-built foreign worker dormitories is stabilising, Mr Wong said it will take time to clear other smaller dorms, such as factory-converted ones.

Several cases of COVID-19 were recently detected among healthcare workers and other support staff working in dormitories and community care facilities like the one at Singapore Expo. "We already have precautions in these settings but we are doing more now by also testing the workers who are working in these settings," Mr Wong said.

He added that these workers will be tested not just once but periodically to ensure they can do their work in a safe environment.

The Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said the ministry is very concerned about the number of staff involved in dormitory operations who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

"We want to make sure that they were properly trained in the use of their personal protective equipment and masks, and that they were obeying and respecting the infection control measures to make sure that they were properly protected," said Associate Professor Mak. "If needed, we will work with the inter-agency task force on refresher training, as well as having staff carry out inspections to watch over each other and make sure that everyone is doing the right thing."

Prof Mak also said the Health Ministry decides whether or not to attribute the death of a patient to COVID-19 based on the advice of medical authorities such as a doctor who attended to the patient or a coroner.

"Our approach really is first to ask ourselves, is this directly attributable to COVID-19 infection or complications related to COVID-19 infection? If they are, we will report them as such," he said.

"This comes out in our press statement every day. We are quite transparent in announcing and reporting all the deaths that we have."

He said that if a death is determined not to be due to COVID-19, it will still be reported but not attributed to the virus.

All TCM halls allowed to open from May 12 after review of circuit breaker measures
By Wong Kai Yi, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

All traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) medical halls will be allowed to open from next Tuesday, to meet the demand for such services, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

As part of the easing of circuit breaker measures, the Government had earlier given the green light for the 130 medical halls attached to registered TCM practitioners to open from Tuesday this week.

Only these were allowed to sell retail products as well as provide consultation and herbal dispensary services.

Mr Gan said of the decision to now allow all TCM medical halls to offer retail services: "This will provide more convenience, especially for our seniors."

The Health Ministry had received feedback from seniors that it was too far for some of them to travel to these few medical halls to buy medicine, he added.

Mr Gan noted that he had also promised Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah that he would look into the matter.

The Nee Soon GRC MP had asked in Parliament on Monday whether the reopening of all TCM shops could be prioritised.

Even as the restrictions are lifted, Mr Gan stressed that medical halls must put in place the necessary safe distancing measures before commencing operations, particularly as they serve many seniors.

He added: "Let us work together to keep our seniors safe. Let us keep up our good habits, such as safe distancing, personal hygiene and wearing of masks.

"Avoid interacting with seniors if you are unwell. Together, we can protect them from the infection."

Earlier this week, customers had rushed to receive acupuncture treatments at TCM clinics that were allowed to open on Tuesday, the first day of resumption of such treatments since the start of circuit breaker measures on April 7.

Even as the rules are relaxed further, services like cupping, gua sha and tui na are still not allowed.

Ministry of Manpower takes 228 firms, work pass holders to task
Penalties include fines and bans for flouting circuit breaker rules or stay-home notices
By Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

Since early last month, 228 companies and work pass holders have been caught flouting circuit breaker measures at workplaces and stay-home notice requirements, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said yesterday.

MOM said the work passes of 29 people were revoked because they breached circuit breaker measures and stay-home notices, after the ministry conducted 75,000 video calls and inspections on foreign workers between April 13 and 30.

The measures were put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus here.

These workers have been permanently banned from working in Singapore.

Of these, 17 work pass holders were caught eating, drinking and gathering in groups, while the other 12 were caught leaving their residences despite being on stay-home notices.

The ministry also suspended the work pass privileges of nine employers for failing to ensure that their employees complied with the stay-home notice requirements.

MOM said that it fined 29 workplaces for breaching safe distancing rules and they were issued composition fines that totalled $29,000, after it conducted more than 15,000 inspections at workplaces from April 7 to May 5.

These workplaces failed to ensure proper safe distancing and crowd management, conduct temperature screening, and proper tracking of employees and visitors' entry into the workplace.

Overall, MOM noted that the vast majority of companies here were compliant and have put in place the necessary safe distancing measures at their workplaces.

Meanwhile, 170 non-essential companies were found operating during the circuit breaker period.

The ministry said that 16 of the 170 non-essential firms found operating without approval during the circuit breaker period were issued composition fines totalling $16,000.

The other firms were issued stern warnings.

"MOM will continue to conduct checks on businesses and workers to ensure compliance with circuit breaker measures and stay-home notice requirements, so as to keep our workplaces safe," the ministry said.

With the circuit breaker period expected to end on June 1, the ministry said that it, along with the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation, will issue an advisory to prepare companies to resume operations.

The advisory will include implementing a system of safe management measures at workplaces; ensuring safe distancing; supporting contact tracing requirements, requiring personal protective equipment and observing good personal hygiene; ensuring the cleanliness of premises; and implementing health checks and protocols to manage potential cases.

Wearable dongle among options being explored to boost contact tracing
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

A contact tracing dongle that those without smartphones can take along when they go out is among the tech options that the Government is currently exploring as it seeks to boosts its ability to track the coronavirus outbreak.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said during a virtual press conference yesterday that swiftly identifying contacts of those infected will be key as Singapore's economy opens up, adding that the authorities are looking to have several options in place when the circuit breaker eases next month.

"By the time we get to post-June 1, we will have some solutions in place to have faster contact tracing," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the coronavirus outbreak.

The idea would be to identify the contacts of an infected person more quickly and "issue quarantine orders on an electronic platform instantly".

Asked if the use of contact tracing app TraceTogether would be made compulsory for employees going back to work, Mr Wong said: "When we are ready with a solution, we will announce what that solution is, and we will indeed want everyone to have that solution in place."

TraceTogether is being improved, he said, even as other applications and solutions that do not require smartphones are being considered.

"We are also looking at possibilities, like a wearable, a dongle that people can carry with them when they go out. So for those without smartphones, the possibility of being able to track them remains - for contact tracing purposes.

"So there are a few potential solutions that are being explored. Even right now, the technical teams are discussing intensively with Apple, Google and other tech providers.

"When we are ready with a solution, we will explain what that solution is, and we will want everyone to pick it up."

The digital check-in system, known as SafeEntry, has been taken up by essential-sector businesses such as supermarkets, clinics and food and beverage outlets. Users can check in and out of a venue using the SafeEntry portal - by scanning a QR code with their own mobile devices.

Mr Wong said the Government will soon publish a list of specific places that need to adopt the SafeEntry system. By and large, it will be made compulsory for all workplaces from next Tuesday onwards, so long as they are open, he said.

Yesterday, 8 May, the Ministry of Health confirmed 768 new cases of COVID-19 in Singapore, bringing the total count to 21,707. Foreign workers staying in dormitories continue to make up the bulk of new coronavirus cases here.

Some businesses, such as selected food businesses and hairdressers, are allowed to reopen from next Tuesday, subject to restrictions.

Mr Wong urged these firms to put in place measures for a safe working environment, and not be in a rush to raise their shutters.

He said: "Do not be in a rush to reopen your business and neglect the important safe management practices that you have to put in place first.

"If the business premises do not have the necessary precautions and safeguards in place, then we may have to ask you to stop work anyway, and there will be penalties imposed."

Four-legged robot reminds visitors of safe distancing measures in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park
By Cheryl Tan, The Straits Times, 9 May 2020

A four-legged robot started patrolling Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to remind people of safe distancing measures yesterday.

Called SPOT, the robot will assist with safe distancing efforts in parks, gardens and nature reserves managed by the National Parks Board (NParks) and in parks managed by town councils.

The pilot trial is jointly conducted by NParks and the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG). The SPOT robot will broadcast a recorded message reminding park visitors to observe safe distancing measures.

It is fitted with cameras, enabled by GovTech-developed video analytics, to help it estimate the number of visitors in the parks. The cameras, however, will not be able to track or recognise specific individuals, nor will it collect any personal data.

As part of the two-week trial, SPOT will be deployed over a 3km stretch in the River Plains section of the park during off-peak hours, and it will be accompanied by at least one NParks officer.

If successful, NParks will consider deploying SPOT for safe distancing efforts in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in the morning and evening peak hours.

NParks is also looking into deploying the robot in other parks such as Jurong Lake Gardens.

Originally developed by American company Boston Dynamics, the robot is able to navigate obstacles more effectively compared with wheeled robots, making it suitable for different terrain.

It is also fitted with safety sensors to detect objects and people within 1m to avoid collision.

GovTech has enhanced SPOT with various functions such as remote control, 3D-mapping and semi-autonomous operations to facilitate the trial.

It is currently looking to develop analytics allowing SPOT to check if park visitors are observing safe distancing measures.

As the robot is controlled remotely, less manpower is needed for park patrols, helping to minimise physical contact among staff, safe distancing ambassadors and park visitors. This helps to lower their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

NParks is also deploying 30 drones to detect visitorship in selected parks and nature areas.

In addition, the Safe Distance At Parks portal lets people find parks near them, as well as check the crowd situation at the parks before making their way there.

The SPOT robot is also on trial at the Changi Exhibition Centre community isolation facility, which houses patients with mild symptoms, to help deliver essential items such as medicine to patients.

The SNDGG will also be exploring the use of the robot in supporting other COVID-19-related operations across agencies.

Last month, an autonomous robot known as O-R3 was deployed in Bedok Reservoir Park by national water agency PUB as a kind of safe distancing ambassador.

The four-wheeled robot was originally used for surveillance, but it now broadcasts safe distancing messages at the park as it patrols the area in the mornings and the evenings when human traffic is at its highest.

Similar robots will be deployed at Pandan and MacRitchie reservoirs.

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