Friday, 7 August 2020

Singapore cautiously moving towards a new normal amid COVID-19 pandemic

Permitted Singaporean and PR travellers can tap subsidies, insurance if infected
Majority of foreign workers in dorms to resume work by end-August 2020
Most events to remain virtual; working from home to be default option
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2020

With more activities and events resuming, borders gradually reopening and most foreign workers set to resume work this month, Singapore is cautiously moving towards a new normal amid the pandemic.

To support these changes, travellers who contract COVID-19 while on permitted essential travel will be able to tap financial support from today, while workers will be tested regularly to minimise the chances of a flare-up.

The multi-ministry task force on the coronavirus set out these steps yesterday, even as it stressed the need for caution and vigilance to avoid a new wave of cases.

Almost all foreign workers will be tested for COVID-19 by today, and the majority will be allowed to go back to work by the end of this month, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong during a virtual press conference.

This means that many construction activities and projects should be able to resume soon, he added.

And under changes to the charging policy for travellers getting treatment, those who head abroad under permitted schemes, and develop symptoms of COVID-19 infection within 14 days of their return to Singapore, can get more help with their hospitalisation bills.

Permitted schemes include bilateral arrangements with Malaysia and China, and any that may be implemented in future.

Since March 27, Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and long-term pass holders who travelled overseas have had to pay for their own inpatient medical bills in full if they developed symptoms within 14 days of their return. They were also unable to claim from MediShield Life or Integrated Shield Plans in public and private hospitals.

But as the Government gradually reopens its borders, permitted Singaporean and PR travellers can now tap government subsidies, MediShield Life and Integrated Shield Plans for treatment.

Likewise, long-term pass holders who travel under permitted arrangements can tap financing arrangements like foreign worker insurance for their treatment.

The travellers will bear any remaining co-payment.

But while certain restrictions are lifted or eased, life will not return to what it was before the worldwide spread of the coronavirus, the task force warned.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said Singapore should not let its guard down even though the number of new COVID-19 cases here is likely to taper down by end-August as dormitories are cleared.

"We have seen the experiences everywhere in the world... So long as there is a lapse in the community or people do not observe the safe management practices carefully, these low levels of infection can suddenly flare up into large clusters anywhere, any time," he said.

Working from home should remain the default for employees. And where possible, events should remain fully virtual, or take on a hybrid physical-virtual form.

This includes large gatherings and festivities surrounding national and community occasions, said task force co-chair and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

The Health Ministry said prayers for the lunar seventh month and post-funeral religious rites will be allowed to take place in places of worship and some external venues like Housing Board common areas, if conducted by religious organisations with a good track record of safe management measures, or by workers endorsed by these organisations.

Mr Gan also urged those who are unwell to see a doctor instead of trying to self-medicate or sleeping it off, so that COVID-19 infections can be detected at an early stage.

"This will prevent one case from becoming many cases," he said.

Senior activity centres zoom in on virtual care during COVID-19 pandemic

Moves to help seniors be more tech-savvy so they can connect with others amid pandemic
By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Aug 2020

Retired bartender Yong Chow Foo, who has no children, used to visit the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Woodlands every weekday to chit-chat and play card games like rummy with other old folks.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and Singapore enforced the two-month-long circuit breaker, senior activity centres were closed and life became boring, particularly so for Mr Yong as he is not tech-savvy.

The 80-year-old uses his mobile phone for calls but does not know how to use a computer, surf the Web or send e-mails.

Mr Yong, who lives in a one-room rental flat with his wife, recalled in Mandarin: "It felt suffocating as we stayed at home all day, watching TV or staring at the walls."

But now that senior activity centres have reopened, a new life is opening up for Mr Yong, as they are teaching seniors how to go online and have some fun.

Recently, staff from Care Corner Singapore lent Mr Yong a SIM card with a data plan, installed the Skype app on his phone and taught him how to log on to activities through it.

On July 24, he went to the Woodlands senior activity centre to join a virtual tour of Gardens by the Bay with nine other seniors. At the centre, he could either use his phone to take part in the virtual tour or watch it projected onto a screen through a live stream. He chose the latter option.

A group of seniors from another Care Corner senior activity centre also joined the virtual tour, and a few others did so from their homes through Skype.

Conducted through a live stream by a horticulturist, the virtual tour was the first by Gardens by the Bay.

OCBC Bank employees who volunteer at Care Corner Singapore were also at the senior activity centre to interact with the seniors.

Mr Yong described the virtual activities as interesting, though they felt foreign to him.

Singapore has 78 senior activity centres, according to the Yearbook of Statistics 2019. These centres usually hold activities such as mass exercises and karaoke sessions for seniors to socialise with one another.

Social workers say those who attend the events are poor, often live alone and have little or no support from their families. But at the centres, they can interact with other seniors while staff keep an eye on them.

But as large group outings or gatherings are not possible now to keep the coronavirus at bay, the centres have turned to virtual outings and online activities to engage seniors.

These centres are teaching seniors how to use communication tools such as WhatsApp and Zoom and to go online for various activities.

Ms Sandy Goh, manager at Touch Senior Activity Centre, said: "The pandemic has disrupted the way we do things. We have to rethink the way we deliver our services so that seniors will continue to get the help they need."

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link Project gets green light; operations expected to begin at end-2026

The light rail transit system will improve connectivity and ease Causeway congestion
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

Singapore and Malaysia officially resumed the project for the cross-border Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Woodlands and Johor Baru with a ceremony to mark the occasion, one day ahead of a final deadline following multiple postponements.

Not surprisingly, it will get rolling later than planned - service is targeted to start end-2026 - with several changes woven in. The RTS, for example, will now be a light rail transit (LRT) system.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post yesterday evening that the RTS Link would improve connectivity and ease congestion along the Causeway when it is ready.

"So it was apt that we marked this milestone with a bilateral ceremony at the Causeway, which has connected our two countries for almost a hundred years."

PM Lee, along with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, witnessed the ceremony at which Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and his Malaysian counterpart Wee Ka Siong marked the official resumption of the project.

The 4km line, previously slated to be operational by end-2024, will connect passengers between Johor's Bukit Chagar terminus station and the Singapore terminus in Woodlands North. The Customs, immigration and quarantine facilities will be co-located so passengers have to clear immigration only once, at the point of departure.

Both countries also reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the rail link is well-integrated with local transport networks. The Singapore terminus is at Woodlands North on the Thomson-East Coast (TEL) MRT Line, which will serve 32 stations from Woodlands to Bedok by 2024.

Several key changes have been made to the project.

The RTS Link will now be a standalone LRT system, instead of using the same trains and systems as Singapore's TEL. As a result, the RTS Link will no longer use the existing TEL depot at Mandai. A new depot will be built in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru. The cross-border link's capacity remains unchanged at up to 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Transport said that the project would use an LRT system similar to that of a medium-capacity MRT system in Singapore and it would be capable of meeting the peak capacity of 10,000 passengers an hour, in each direction.

Separately, Malaysia has changed its infrastructure company (InfraCo) to a wholly owned subsidiary of Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. The Land Transport Authority remains as Singapore's InfraCo.

The rail link is expected to bring relief to the Causeway, which 300,000 people used to cross daily before the pandemic struck.

The signing turns the page on a project which was agreed to by leaders of both countries a decade ago, but has seen several delays.

Both countries signed a binding agreement to build the link in January 2018, but key project deadlines were missed after the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power in Malaysia less than five months later.

The deadline to come to new terms was subsequently pushed back four times at the request of Malaysia. The last suspension, to the end of this month, was due to factors such as COVID-19 and Malaysia's change of government.

Asked if he was confident that the RTS Link would begin ferrying commuters by 2026, Mr Ong said: "We work with whatever government is in charge and we also, as a country, deeply respect and abide by the agreements (we sign) and I'm sure our partner countries are the same."

PM Lee said in his Facebook post: "The pandemic has shown how deeply entwined our two countries are. Even in these difficult times, we continue to work together, and look forward to doing still more together."