Sunday, 3 May 2020

Singapore's COVID-19 circuit breaker measures to ease progressively from 5 May 2020

Tightened circuit breaker measures extended for another week; some activities allowed to resume from May 5
Some businesses can reopen from May 12, and some students can go to school from May 19
By Lester Wong, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

The stiffer circuit breaker measures, which were meant to be in place until May 4, have been extended by a week, as Singapore has not brought the number of coronavirus infections in the community consistently down to single digits.

But as the spread of the virus in the local community has slowed down, some measures will be tweaked gradually to allow selected businesses to open again in the coming weeks.

"We are making good progress but we are not yet at single digits when it comes to local transmission, so it is not time to lift the tighter measures we have in place," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

"We still need to continue for another week. But we can start making some adjustments."

Adding that it is not "time to slacken and let our guard down", he said: "We have to do this cautiously and gradually. And... we need everyone to cooperate, so that we can open up the economy and resume normal activities safely without causing further clusters to form."

Most enhanced measures, such as going out only when necessary, and even then alone, will remain in place until June 1, pending another review. But from Tuesday, traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture treatment will be allowed, with its medicine halls able to sell retail products.

Those living in condominiums can also exercise within their estate, although facilities like swimming pools and gyms have to remain closed.

On May 12, some businesses will be allowed to restart their operations, provided they have put in place measures to ensure safe distancing on their premises.

Also, hairdressers can resume giving basic haircuts, while pet supplies, and optical and cake shops are among the businesses allowed to reopen, but after having put in place a contact-tracing system for customers using the SafeEntry app.

Mr Wong said businesses allowed to reopen on May 12 will for the most part be those that had to close under the tightened measures from April 21. "So, for companies that had not been allowed to operate at the start of the circuit breaker, we do not expect a lot of them to be able to resume," he added.

Schools will also begin to bring back students in small groups for face-to-face lessons from May 19, with the focus on graduating cohorts taking national exams. Priority will go to those who need school facilities for coursework or need support during the holidays.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday that with the average number of new COVID-19 cases in the community dropping to 12 a day in the past week, from 23 a day in the week before, restrictions on businesses can be lifted gradually.

There were 447 new cases yesterday, 2 May, - the ninth straight day with numbers below the 1,000 mark. Most of the new cases were linked to foreign worker dormitories and six involved community infections. But a 76-year-old Singaporean man has died, bringing the number of fatalities here from the virus to 17.

Mr Gan highlighted that seniors remain a serious concern, and urged them to stay indoors and not meet family members they do not live with.

"We know it is very difficult. We naturally want to go out to have sunlight, to meet our friends, to socialise and to even have interaction with our family members," said Mr Gan.

"But I would encourage you to continue to stay at home because this is for your own protection."

Yesterday, it was also announced that residents and staff in all homes serving the elderly, including nursing homes, will be given priority in testing for the virus. Staff will also be required to stay on-site.

Easing measures a balance between need and risks
Considerations include nature of business, number of workers and transmission risks
By Toh Ting Wei, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

The circuit breaker restrictions will be eased gradually and businesses will have to meet certain criteria before they can resume their operations.

Businesses in sectors that can reopen from May 12 will be notified directly and will have to apply for approval before getting the green light, it was announced.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong outlined some of the criteria they must meet before reopening.

He told a briefing yesterday: "First, we look at the nature of the business, whether they are essential, it's important for these services or businesses to continue.

"Some are in the supply chain, for example. We could maybe disrupt it for a short period of time but it's not sustainable, and therefore, some of the supply chain has to resume."

Other considerations include the number of workers in the business, whether the business attracts crowds and whether risks can be mitigated.

"So it's a balance between the essential nature of the business versus the risk of transmission, and the ability to put in precautionary measures," Mr Gan added.

"These factors will vary from time to time depending on the situation and we will adjust the measures, therefore, from time to time."

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the outbreak, said the process of easing restrictions will be gradual.

He said that it will not be a complete return to the status quo before the extended circuit breaker was imposed two weeks ago.

"We look at risk assessments, we look at areas where there may be higher risk of crowds gathering - and some of these places we will not allow - but other than that, we will relax some of the measures and allow the business to continue," he said.

Some stores are reportedly alerting customers that they are ready to resume business on May 5, but Mr Wong told them not to jump the gun: "The individual shops will be notified. They need to get exemption specifically from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) before they can start resuming operations.

"And if the shops have not been notified, they should not presume that they can be allowed to start operations at all."

He added that MTI will be contacting businesses that can reopen from now till May 12.

Among those that can reopen include shops selling cakes, desserts and pet food. Hairdressers and laundry shops can also reopen.

On the opening of workplaces, Mr Wong said this will mean that more workers will start returning to work.

The tightened circuit breaker measures meant that only 15 per cent of the workforce is allowed to commute daily to work, down from 20 per cent two weeks ago.

"We will start to open up more but do it gradually and subject to the requirement that all workplace premises that open have to put in place tighter, stricter measures," said Mr Wong.

"We are in the process of engaging all the industry associations, and business chambers, and companies in order to put this in place before we will gradually open up."

In response to a question about what will happen in June when the extended circuit breaker measures are expected to be lifted, Mr Wong said it is premature to say what will happen then.

Noting that the task force will study its options based on how the situation develops, Mr Wong added: "We will do it in a calibrated, gradual manner, and we will look at risks and we will ensure that we can resume activities safely without the risk of having new clusters forming.

"We will not open up suddenly and then everything resumes, that's not going to be possible."

Elderly must continue to be extra cautious, not time yet to relax
Health Minister urges seniors to stay indoors and not meet family members they do not live with
By Lester Wong and Janice Tai, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

This is not the time to relax, the multi-ministry task force handling the pandemic said yesterday, as it highlighted the need for the elderly to continue to be extra cautious despite the easing of some circuit breaker measures from May 5.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong urged seniors to stay indoors and not meet family members they do not live with, saying precautions should be taken to protect them, given that they are a vulnerable group.

Seniors who become infected with the virus have a higher chance of falling seriously ill and the risk of dying from COVID-19 significantly increases with age.

All 17 COVID-19 patients in Singapore who have died were seniors with the youngest at 58 years old.

While family members can deliver groceries to seniors, gatherings are discouraged.

"We know it is very difficult. We naturally want to go out to have sunlight, to meet our friends, to socialise and to even have interaction with our family members," said Mr Gan yesterday.

"But I would encourage you to continue to stay at home because this is for your own protection."

The best way to deliver food to the elderly, he added, is to leave the items outside their homes for the seniors to pick them up, without having any contact. This will minimise the risk of exposure.

Separately, while some businesses will be allowed to reopen, they will do so only with the appropriate safeguards in place.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said Singaporeans should continue to stay home as far as possible and not treat the easing of measures as a signal that the battle is won.

"The bottom line is, this is not the time to slacken and let our guard down. We may be easing some measures but we must stay very disciplined and vigilant," he said.

"We have to do this cautiously and gradually. And as we do this, we need everyone to cooperate, so that we can open up the economy and resume normal activities safely, without causing further clusters to form."

Mr Wong added that Singaporeans should continue to abide by the spirit of the guidelines and not the letter of the law.

"This means all (staying) at home, (avoiding) going out as much as possible and minimising contact. And when you go out, do it alone," he said.

Activities that entail large groups gathering in close proximity, such as religious gatherings, will continue to be disallowed, Mr Wong said.

"I don't know exactly when, but I would imagine that these sorts of settings, these kinds of high touch, close contact activities will be the last that we allow," he said.

"So we just have to be mindful. This is the nature of the infection. Whenever there is close contact (or) interactions between people, that's how the virus will spread."

Schools to bring back small groups of students from May 19, with focus on graduating cohorts
By Olivia Ho, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

Schools can start bringing in students in small groups for face-to-face lessons from May 19 as circuit breaker measures slowly ease up, it was announced yesterday.

The initial focus will be on graduating cohorts taking national exams - Primary 6, Secondary 4 and 5, Junior College 2 and Pre-University 3.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post yesterday that the process will be done in "a careful and calibrated manner, with ample safe distancing".

"They will come back in small groups, on selected days, throughout the day, and will be spaced out within the school compound.

"They will meet teachers one to one or in small groups. Masks are compulsory. We know that these students have been anxious about the preparation for their national exams, and that home-based learning cannot fully substitute face-to-face coaching and lessons."

Institutions of higher learning, particularly the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), will also allow more students to return to campus for critical consultations, projects or practicums, the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19 said.

The entire cohort will not be allowed back, with priority going to those who need school facilities as well as those who need additional support during vacations.

"We are not opening up the entire school system at all," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force. He noted that the process will be a gradual one, with a review next month.

Mr Ong added that schools will continue to engage students with greater needs and provide care for those whose parents work in essential services and are unable to secure alternative care arrangements during the four-week school holidays that start on Tuesday.

Teachers rostered during this period will get time off later this month, as the first two weeks of the holidays are usually set aside as protected rest time.

"This is something we always do, to allow teachers some time to rest and recharge, although we know many of them use the time to plan lessons and stay in touch with students," added Mr Ong.

Workplaces must put in place more stringent rules
By Janice Tai, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

Some workplaces that meet a range of criteria will be gradually reopened from May 12, but more stringent requirements will be imposed, it was announced yesterday.

Companies will be assessed on their importance to the economy and supply chains, their contribution to local employment and ability to minimise transmission risks at the workplace.

Firms must put in place safe management practices, such as identifying situations that have higher infection risks, and implementing safeguards.

For example, companies must continue to allow staff to work from home wherever possible, enforce safe distancing at the workplace, stagger working hours and break times and ensure no cross-deployment of employees across teams or work sites.

Employees must always wear a mask at work and no staff gatherings can be permitted, such as interacting in work canteens or going out in groups for lunch.

The authorities said they will work closely with trade associations and business chambers to help companies prepare to meet the tougher requirements when they reopen.

The SafeEntry system, which records the check-in and check-out of employees and visitors, must also be deployed at workplaces, apart from other places such as malls or supermarkets.


Healthcare concerns should take priority when contact tracing, says Shanmugam
Contact-tracing apps key to country opening up again
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent In Washington, The Sunday Times, 3 May 2020

Apps that can trace a person who has been near a COVID-19 patient are vital in protecting the health service and getting a country to open up again, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam told an online forum: "We can't all be in a state of suspended animation, all staying in our rooms. If you don't die of the virus, you'll die of economic stagnation.

"You need to open up, but in a controlled way, and the answer is massive testing and massive tracing."

Mr Shanmugam's comments on Friday at a discussion on how Singapore and New York are battling the virus came amid concerns that not enough people in Singapore have downloaded the contact-tracing app TraceTogether.

He noted: "There are individual rights of privacy, but if you don't take care and cannot actively contact trace... the healthcare worker who has to take care of you is at risk. You're putting other people at risk.

"You're potentially overwhelming the healthcare system. You're possibly denying proper healthcare to others who have been more responsible than you have been.

"If you weigh all of this, I think it comes down on the side of contact tracing, probably with the kind of app that resides in your phone."

In Singapore, only around 17 per cent of the population have downloaded the app, but 75 per cent or so should have it installed for it to be effective, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Friday.

Countries around the world are building or using contact-tracing apps, but adoption rates and roll-out speeds have varied. Some like South Korea use the app widely, while others such as France have held back so far over privacy concerns.

At the discussion, which was hosted by United States magazine Foreign Policy, former New York deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff said that as long as governments were honest about how data was being collected and used, privacy concerns can be overcome.

"The most important thing is to do the minimum necessary to invade people's privacy, to be very clear and transparent about how data is being used. And ultimately, to make the case that the benefits significantly outweigh the costs," said Mr Doctoroff, a former Bloomberg chief executive who linked with Google to co-found a technology start-up focusing on improving city living.

Mr Shanmugam added: "There's nothing that any app like this will find that tech platforms don't already know about you."

Mr Doctoroff and Mr Shanmugam also discussed other challenges, including keeping patients in isolation amid a space crunch and how cities, commutes and workplaces will be transformed in the wake of the pandemic.

States across the US are ramping up contact-tracing capabilities, but with a preference for manual tracing done by paid staff. Although tech giants are working on apps, they are unlikely to be embraced as widely as in other countries.

A poll by The Washington Post and University of Maryland last Wednesday found that nearly 60 per cent of Americans are not willing to use a smartphone app that would inform users if they were in contact with a COVID-19 patient.

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