SINGAPORE — Those who are able to work from home will be expected to continue to do so for the “foreseeable future” beyond the circuit breaker period, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Sunday (May 3).
For the other businesses that require on-site work such as those within the manufacturing sector, they will now need to start preparing for a phased reopening of the economy from May 12 onwards, which will be based on how well they have adopted safety measures within and outside of the workplace.
These measures will be key to how the Government plans to gradually reopen the economy, in light of the potential for a new Covid-19 outbreak down the road, said the minister in a video interview over video conferencing app Zoom.
“If every time there is a flare up, then you will need to go into another set of (circuit breaker) measures, which will be very costly and inconvenient for the business community. The reason that we are putting in place these safe and sustainable measures is to make sure that we don’t have this play out, or at least to minimise the chances of this playing out to the lowest possible,” said Mr Chan.
The multi-ministry task force overseeing Singapore’s response to Covid-19 on Saturday announced that the circuit breaker measures will be progressively eased for certain businesses from May 12. These include manufacturing firms, home-based food businesses and confectionery outlets — sectors that physically require on-site activities to function.
Mr Chan on Sunday said that workers involved in the bulk of Singapore’s economic activity have been able to work from home, and this will likely remain as a norm for some time. Currently, around 17 per cent of workers in essential services still commute to work daily.
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“Many people have gotten used to the use of the internet platform for meetings… for work that doesn’t require on-site activities, and they will pretty much continue to do so,” he said.
As businesses and people adjust to this new norm, this has also impacted the demand for local transportation within Singapore, he added
PUTTING IN PLACE SAFE MEASURES
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But for manufacturing and production-based activities that require on-site work, such businesses will have to adopt measures to ensure the working environment is safe, added Mr Chan.
This involves putting in place safe distancing measures in factories and offices, and having “safe rest areas” so that workers can avoid mingling with each other.
Companies will also have to adopt safe “cohorting” policies, which involve splitting staff into teams. Safe cohorting measures should also apply beyond the workplace so that employees in different cohorts, working different shifts or at different worksites do not mix and interact with each other, he emphasised.
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Other measures include technological solutions to track and trace staff, as well as testing for higher risk groups.
These measures will apply to both local and foreign workers, including those residing in worker dormitories.
He noted that several companies that depend more on foreign workers, such as those in the construction and offshore sectors, have already started to put in place business continuity plans.
“Companies and management must take responsibility to advise their workers to not mix, and maintain the social discipline beyond work… This will be critical for us, because if there should be a flare up in any one particular group, we can quickly isolate that group, and allow the rest of the work to continue,” said Mr Chan.
PROGRESSIVE REOPENING OF ECONOMY
He added: “With these safe working environment measures and safe cohorting measures, we think we’ll be able to progressively restart many of the production activities that have taken a backseat for the last two weeks.”
Businesses that meet the conditions may be permitted to restart their on-site operations after May 12.
By June 1, when the circuit breaker period is set to end, the number of businesses that are permitted to reopen will “depend very much on the ability of various companies to put in place these measures”, said Mr Chan.
He added that social and entertainment based businesses will likely take a longer time to reopen, urging them to use the time to search for new business models as Covid-19 reshapes norms around the world. Mr Chan said the Government is looking at help schemes for these sectors on top of what has already been rolled out.
For now, the focus is on restoring manufacturing capacities and production capabilities first and maintaining the connectivity of Singapore’s air, land and sea links to the rest of the world, he said. “Sectors that allow us to trade with the world and access critical supplies will progressively restart first,” Mr Chan added.
Responding to a question on how business travel, especially among countries in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), can eventually resume since they are at varying stages of the pandemic, Mr Chan said the Government is looking at “very focused and targeted essential travel” for now before resuming cross-border travel for the mass market.
“We need to see how we can market Asean (to the world) as an integrated package,” he said. “But in order for us to get Asean as an integrated package, we also need to make sure that we have the same common health standard, cross-border health declarations, and checks in order for us to resume the cross border travels. So this is something that we need to work on.”
FIGHT FAR FROM OVER
Urging firms to remain vigilant, Mr Chan said: “The fight is far from over. We are always very cautious, that we do not want to allow any case to cause a cluster to develop or to flash over other communities. So, this is not something that we can do alone, we have to work with like-minded partners.”
Because of the potential for a “hidden reservoir” of Covid-19 cases causing another outbreak, every country has the risk of another flash of cases at the back of their minds, he said.
“Once any cases are detected, we will have to quickly isolate and treat them to prevent them from becoming a bigger cluster — that is the approach that I think most countries which want to resume (operations) will have to undertake. Until we find a vaccine or a new way to cure the disease, I think this is a good working assumption for us as well.”