Saturday, 23 January 2021

COVID-19 safe management measures tightened from 26 January 2021; senior citizens to be vaccinated from 27 January, starting with pilots in Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar

Visitors per household capped at 8 per day from 26 Jan; Chinese New Year visits limited to 2 other households

COVID-19 vaccination for seniors to begin from 27 Jan at Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar; national roll-out for elderly begins mid-February

More than 60,000 people in Singapore have received COVID-19 vaccines as of 22 Jan
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

From Tuesday, Jan 26, all households will be able to host a maximum of eight guests a day, as part of stepped-up measures to combat rising Covid-19 infections ahead of Chinese New Year.

Individuals are encouraged to limit themselves to visiting at most two other households daily, and stick to visiting only family members during the festive period, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the Covid-19 crisis, said yesterday.

Three coronavirus clusters have emerged since Singapore entered phase three of its reopening on Dec 28, when households were permitted to receive up to eight guests at any one time.

But increased social interaction during the year-end period has contributed to the rising number of community cases, said Mr Wong.

"With more human activities, there is an increased chance of transmission of any infectious disease," he added. "That is why we are very concerned. Because compared to, say, a month ago, our vulnerability has increased, and the situation can escalate very rapidly, especially with the likelihood of more interactions and activities taking place over the Chinese New Year period."

People will still be allowed to gather outside in groups of up to eight. However, the Government will be stepping up spot checks at restaurants, malls and other crowded venues. Tough action will be taken against individuals and operators caught flouting rules.

The authorities will also conduct a surveillance testing exercise for stallholders, shop owners, restaurant workers and food delivery workers operating in and around Chinatown. The two-day exercise will start on Feb 8. The authorities will reach out to these groups with further details.

"While there has been no evidence that these community groups are at higher risk of infection, the Ministry of Health will be offering tests to them as they are expected to interact more frequently with other members of the public during this time," the ministry said in a statement yesterday. It added that the Government will fully bear the costs of these tests. "We strongly encourage all individuals in the identified community groups to come forward for testing."

When asked why the new rules were being put in place relatively far ahead of Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 12, Mr Wong said it was a pre-emptive move.

"Based on the recent cases that we have seen, based on the concerns highlighted earlier that we are seeing increased signs of complacency in the community about the transmission risk, we think it is timely to make a pre-emptive move now and not wait till Chinese New Year," he said.

He pointed out that Singapore saw a spike in Covid-19 cases after Chinese New Year last year, with many clusters linked to festive gatherings. These included the large cluster linked to a dinner at Safra Jurong, as well as a family get-together in Mei Hwan Drive.

The minister was also asked if people could pay multiple visits to the same home in a day, or if two different families could visit the same home at the same time.

"I think the rules are very clear," Mr Wong replied. "We never set any stipulations on timing, or length of visits, but it is eight distinct individuals within a day to a particular household."

But beyond that, he appealed to Singaporeans to abide by the spirit of the new rules, which aim to reduce social interactions and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

For example, visiting someone multiple times a day could increase their risk of being exposed to the virus, Mr Wong said.

"For every rule that we set, please do not try and optimise your maximum gain around the rule, as though this is something that you could... gain some additional benefit out of," the minister added.

"Because in the end... by having more exposure, more interactions... you are putting yourself and your loved ones at risk."

Senior citizens to be vaccinated from 27 January 2021, starting with pilots in Ang Mo Kio, Tanjong Pagar
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

Singapore will begin Covid-19 vaccinations for those aged 70 and above from next Wednesday, Jan 27, starting with pilot schemes in Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar, where larger numbers of seniors live.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 of them in each of the two housing estates will be invited to get vaccinated, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

"Depending on the response, we may increase or reduce the number. Soon after the pilot... we will begin to roll out to other areas, other precincts progressively," said Mr Gan, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force.

Singapore's nationwide vaccination effort kicked off on Dec 30 last year, with healthcare and other front-line workers.

The plan, as part of what Mr Gan called the "largest vaccination exercise in our history", is to have enough vaccines for all citizens and long-term residents by the third quarter of this year.

Seniors and other vulnerable groups are a priority given that they are at the greatest risk of being afflicted with severe com-plications should they contract Covid-19.

Two vaccination centres will be set up by Feb 1 at Teck Ghee and Tanjong Pagar community clubs.

But from Monday, seniors in the two areas will be able to book appointments to be vaccinated at polyclinics, Mr Gan said.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said seniors will receive letters inviting them to book their slots. This can be done either online or at selected community centres near them. Volunteers, including those from the People's Association, will conduct house visits and tap existing grassroots events to answer queries and help seniors book appointments if necessary.

Those who need extra help can call the MOH hotline.

The two pilots will help the ministry iron out operational processes before it proceeds to scale up nationwide, with vaccinations to be progressively extended to all other seniors from the middle of next month.

MOH added that more vaccination centres will be set up over the next few weeks to ensure that all seniors can conveniently receive their vaccinations at a centre near where they live. These will be located in high population catchment areas or along public transport routes for greater accessibility.

Tender documents issued by MOH earlier this week revealed that it was seeking to appoint a vendor to set up 36 centres from next month.

Last week, Mr Gan said eight vaccination centres would be set up by the end of next month.

Coronavirus Chinese New Year: Toss the yusheng but don't toss aside that face mask
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

Singaporeans should be prepared for a quieter, more subdued Chinese New Year, and continue to abide by existing rules on dining out, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

This means face masks should be worn when tossing the traditional yusheng, with no accompanying recitation of the usual auspicious phrases.

"There should not be any singing or loud shouting or talking during a meal," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.

The minister warned that enforcement checks will be stepped up at food and beverage outlets, shopping malls and other crowded public venues, with strict penalties for those found in breach of the rules. Individuals can be fined or prosecuted in court, while business owners can have their operations suspended.

The Government has tightened rules on household visits ahead of Chinese New Year, in a pre-emptive move to minimise the number of social interactions and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

From Tuesday, all households will be able to receive only up to eight unique guests a day, while individuals are encouraged to cap their visits at two households a day.

The minister noted that many places which have been successful in controlling infections so far - such as Taiwan and Hong Kong - are also putting in place restrictions on Chinese New Year celebrations. China is also imposing curbs.

"Let us be mentally prepared that Chinese New Year this year will not be the same as before," Mr Wong said. "It will be quieter, it will be more subdued, and we will have to be more disciplined in how we go about our daily activities and interactions."

When asked how the authorities will enforce the new rule on household visits, Mr Wong said that enforcement officers will do random spot checks.

Neighbours of those in breach of the rules may also contact the authorities, he said, noting that this happened on several occasions during the circuit breaker period.

"We know it is not easy to enforce," he said. "It may not be 100 per cent, because you can't have people everywhere, in every home, checking 100 per cent of the time. But we will get feedback from residents themselves, we will be doing random checks."

Mr Wong was also asked whether the Government had other rules or guidelines on Chinese New Year customs, such as the exchanging of oranges or gifting of red packets.

It is impossible to enforce rules on interactions that take place within a home, he replied.

People are encouraged to meet virtually rather than in person, and give electronic red packets instead. "Really, it is up to individuals themselves to do their part and cooperate with these advisories," he said.

The key thing is to protect the elderly, who are most vulnerable to the virus, added Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the task force.

This means observing basic hygiene measures such as washing one's hands before giving oranges or red packets.

"Exercise caution," Mr Gan said. "Always bear in mind the safety of the seniors... so that you do what you can to protect them."

Ms Elsie See, who works in the garment industry, said her family is planning to make phone calls instead of house visits this year, as her relatives are quite old.

"All of us come into contact with a lot of people as part of our jobs on a daily basis, so we wanted to play it safe and not take any chances," the 29-year-old said.

But student Thomas Tan, 21, admitted to being slightly disappointed by the news, as he had hoped to visit more friends during the Chinese New Year period.

"I won't be able to catch up with everyone like I normally do, but I think the measures are reasonable as we should focus on combating the virus instead of getting sucked into festivities," he said.

Additional reporting by Cheryl Tan

More than 60,000 people in Singapore have received first dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Drive to ramp up in coming weeks; situation being monitored to ensure adequate supply
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

Singapore's Covid-19 vaccine programme will kick into high gear in the coming weeks, with more than 60,000 people having received their first doses of the jab, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

While delays are expected for vaccine shipments due to supply issues, the Government is monitoring the situation closely to ensure there are enough jabs for all Singaporeans and long-term residents by the third quarter of this year.

Mr Gan, co-chair of the multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic, said at a media briefing yesterday that about 10,000 individuals received their vaccine doses on Wednesday, and more will be doing so soon.

"These numbers are expected to rise substantially in the coming weeks, as we continue to ramp up our vaccination capacity and operations while maintaining the highest standards of safety," he added.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said 39 staff at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases have already received their second dose of the vaccine. This means that they have completed the full vaccination regimen, and will have built up maximum protection in two weeks' time.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - the only one approved here to date - requires two injections, given 21 days apart.

MOH said there will be some delays in the shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because of upgrading works at Pfizer's manufacturing plant in Belgium.

Mr Gan said one particular shipment has been delayed, but is still scheduled to arrive in time for the vaccination programme.

But he added that disruptions from time to time should be expected, due to uncertainties that remain surrounding the global vaccine roll-out.

He pointed out that manufacturers might divert some of their supplies to other areas that may need vaccines more urgently due to huge outbreaks. Vaccine production and logistics arrangements could also be interrupted, he noted.

Singaporeans should thus not wait to get vaccinated and do so as soon as they are given the chance.

"When your turn comes for the vaccination, please do make an appointment early, because there will always be a possibility of a disruption as we go along, as we move forward," he said.

Singapore is expecting more Covid-19 vaccine deliveries in the next few months, including from American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.

Asked for an update on the review of these vaccines, MOH's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said a decision is expected soon on one of the vaccines under evaluation, which he did not name.

"The other vaccine, I understand we are still clarifying further details with the company that produces the vaccine," he added. "We are hopeful that if we are able to get all the information necessary for evaluation, then HSA (Health Sciences Authority) can complete its review process and then give approval for the other vaccines as well."

Asked about the side effects experienced by those who have been vaccinated here, Prof Mak said the Government has received some reports of "adverse effects" as they arise. It is currently compiling reports on these and submitting them to its vaccine expert panel for review and recommendations.

In general, the majority of side effects reported in various countries that have launched vaccination programmes have been very mild, he said.

These include pain, redness, swelling, soreness of the muscles, as well as fatigue and fever.

"Many of these symptoms in fact reflect the body's immune system responding to the vaccine dose that has been injected in them, and there will be some that may have more serious side effects which include allergic reactions of a variety of different grades of severity."

The authorities are still compiling and organising the data, and will give an update when ready, Prof Mak added.

On vaccine passports - proof of vaccination usually for travel purposes - Education Minister Lawrence Wong said Singapore is still studying the matter.

For example, the Government will consider reducing the quarantine requirement if it is proven that those inoculated are immune and cannot transmit Covid-19 to others. This would apply to foreign visitors and returning Singaporeans who have received their jabs.

"But these are still early days. We are still studying the data and the evidence very carefully before we make any decisions on this matter," Mr Wong said.

Range of factors will determine if further measures are needed
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

The multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic will look at a range of indicators and not just a single factor when determining if further restrictions will be implemented ahead of Chinese New Year.

These indicators will include the number of daily new Covid-19 cases, especially those that are unlinked, the cases found among patients who see doctors for acute respiratory infections, and the latest situation and assessments, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong.

Speaking during a media conference yesterday, Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said he felt a sense of deja vu as the questions raised about the factors that might lead to measures being stepped up were similar to last year's.

"We look at the prevailing safe management measures and compliance with the safe management measures. If people are keeping to the measures, then it gives us some confidence that there is discipline, there is control, and people are complying," he said.

"But if there is a lot of non-compliance, then there is again a cause for concern. So, we look at this range of different measures, and based on the overall assessment, based on the latest situation and assessments, we will then consider whether or not additional restrictions or measures might be necessary."

Mr Wong reiterated that priority for vaccination will go to healthcare and front-line workers at border checkpoints as they are more at risk. This group includes airport and maritime workers as well as those involved in wholesale markets who interact with delivery riders coming from Malaysia.

"These workers who are in our new front line, they are the ones who are doing essential work to keep things going, to keep life going in Singapore, but they are exposed to travellers... and therefore, they are at risk of bringing the virus into the community," he said.

Mr Wong acknowledged that it will not be easy to enforce some of the new measures.

Citing the enforcement of the rule allowing households to receive up to eight distinct visitors a day, he said it is much harder to enforce a rule on visiting only up to two households outside one's own a day.

"Therefore, it will be an advisory, and we are strongly advising everyone (to comply)," he said.

He said in previous instances when the Government strongly advised Singaporeans to take certain precautions, such as the advisory on exercising or buying groceries alone, during the circuit breaker last year, many Singaporeans understood the importance and cooperated.

"Again, for this new advisory, we call on everyone to cooperate and to do their part to help us keep the infection under control so that together, we can avoid having to impose further drastic measures down the road," added Mr Wong.

Over 500 truck drivers tested for COVID-19 at checkpoints on day 1 of new measure, all negative: MOH
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

More than 500 truck drivers have been tested for Covid-19 at Singapore's two land checkpoints since a new requirement kicked in at 9am yesterday, with all results coming back negative, said the Ministry of Health's (MOH) director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

Compulsory antigen rapid tests (ART) were rolled out at the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints for cargo drivers. Tests will be conducted at random in this initial phase, and extended to all truck drivers and those accompanying them in the coming weeks. Only those who test negative can enter Singapore.

Associate Professor Mak was responding to a question which cited reports of delays at the checkpoints on the first day of testing, at a media conference by the multi-ministry task force for Covid-19 yesterday.

Prof Mak said testing operations had been observed as being conducted relatively smoothly. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and various sector leads will continue to refine processes to ensure minimal disruption to businesses and drivers, and for testing to continue without causing too much delay at the checkpoints, he added.

The new requirement is in line with Singapore's strengthened border controls in response to new virus variants and a worsening global situation. All travellers - including Singapore citizens and permanent residents - must take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test when they arrive in Singapore, with effect from tomorrow.

PCR tests are slower but more sensitive compared with the ART being carried out on truck drivers, which can return results in about 30 minutes.

As ARTs are less accurate, drivers will be advised to take a confirmatory PCR test within 72 hours of returning home if the ART is positive. If this PCR test is negative, they can re-enter Singapore.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force, reiterated yesterday that the authorities were taking no chances at Singapore's borders. He acknowledged that the number of imported Covid-19 cases in recent days was quite high.

Since mid-December last year, the daily figure has been in the double digits, compared with fewer than 10 imported cases a day between October and November last year.

Scientists have said this was to be expected, with Singapore lifting border restrictions and the success of measures to screen out infections.

Visitors from Brunei, China, New Zealand, Vietnam, Australia and Taiwan have been gradually allowed into the country in an easing of restrictions, which was also extended to new work permit and S Pass holders across all sectors to alleviate the manpower shortage faced by businesses.

But Mr Wong said the spike in imported cases was not due to more travellers coming into Singapore - a number which has stayed relatively constant.

"It is a reflection of the increase in the infection rate around us," he explained. "Because of the higher prevalence, we are seeing a higher incidence of cases amongst the number of travellers who come through our borders.

"We have put in place a pre-departure test to screen out some of them, but that is still not effective enough because the virus may be incubating. They may test negative overseas but when they come through, they turn positive."

Mr Wong added: "For those travellers who are coming in, we continue to keep the measures tight by having the stay-home notice requirement and making sure that they are in quarantine, and then testing them at the tail end of the quarantine. So, those border measures remain tight, remain secure."

Work from home to stay as default to lower office transmission risk
Tripartite partners issue update after review of safe management measures at workplace
By Goh Yan Han and Cheryl Tan, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

Working from home should remain the default arrangement to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission at offices, the labour movement, employers' union and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said yesterday.

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and MOM said they jointly reviewed whether there was a need to adjust safe management measures at the workplace after Singapore moved to phase three of its reopening last month, but decided it was safer to have people working from home.

Their update comes amid a rise in the number of local Covid-19 cases, some of whom are currently unlinked and have led to the formation of community clusters arising from workplace interactions.

As at yesterday, the number of new cases in the community had increased from two cases the week before to 21 cases in the past week.

The tripartite partners also reminded companies not to organise gatherings and social activities such as lohei or Chinese New Year meals, as these are not work-related activities and would not be allowed.

The statement added that even with the current workplace safe management measures, peak-hour travel on public transport this month still increased by 11 per cent over travel in November last year.

Under current advisories, employers must implement flexible work hours so that at least half of all employees start work in the office at or after 10am, to avoid a peak-hour travel crush.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post yesterday that Covid-19 has led to people using technology to work smarter "and demonstrated that even as more people return to office to work, the peak hour rush and crush is totally unnecessary".

He added: "Covid-19 is an opportunity to shift our travel-ling habits."

Current guidelines also require employers to ensure that those whose jobs can be done from home continue to work from home for at least half of their working time. For example, someone with a six-day work week can be in the office for up to three days a week.

In addition, employers must ensure that no more than half of those who can work from home are in the office at any one time.

Meetings should also be held virtually as much as possible.

In yesterday's statement, the tripartite partners called on employers to implement staggered work hours more extensively.

"The public sector has contributed to this effort by enabling staff to adopt flexible workplace arrangements, such as hybrid working arrangements, flexible workplace hours and staggered start times," they added.

In his post, Mr Ong said the Transport Ministry is doing its part. Land Transport Authority officers can report to work at 7.30am or 10am, or work from home for at least 50 per cent of the time. The ministry too has similar practices.

"This spreads out the load on our buses, trains and roads. It makes rides safer and better," Mr Ong added.

The tripartite partners also said that the SNEF and NTUC will continue to consult closely with MOM to assess when further adjustments to safe management measures (SMM) can be made.

"While we understand the desire for more physical workplace interactions, we urge employers and employees to stay vigilant in the fight against Covid-19. The prevailing SMM requirements are vital to continue safe reopening for the economy," they said.

Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, told The Straits Times that the continuation of existing measures was prudent and necessary, given the Covid-19 situation.

He noted that businesses have become accustomed to work-from-home arrangements, although those requiring more face-to-face interaction with customers may be affected.

"The whole workforce and business ecosystem has adapted and is prepared to ensure vigilance over safe distancing measures, and everybody is quite mindful that... we will have to adhere to these restrictions to get over any blips or cluster outbreaks," he added.


Singapore to enter Phase 3 of Re-Opening on 28 Dec 2020; COVID-19 vaccines will be free for Singaporeans

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