Coronavirus: Taiwan front-line medical staff need approval to travel to countries with outbreaks, including Singapore

A man waits to have his temperature checked at the entrance of the Taoyuan General Hospital in Taoyuan City, Taiwan, on Feb 22, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI - Taiwan's Ministry of Health and Welfare announced on Monday (Feb 24) that front-line medical personnel working in hospitals will need to apply for approval before travelling to countries or regions with outbreaks of Covid-19.

These medical staff will be banned from travelling to regions with a Level 3 travel alert - the highest level alert - such as China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Those who wish to travel to areas that have lower travel alerts, issued by Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), must apply for approval before going.

Currently, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are Level 2 countries. Italy, Iran and Thailand are at Level 1. Travellers to these countries should take precautions against becoming infected.

The ministry's restrictions are based on the travel alerts from the CECC.

In a late press conference on Monday, Mr Shih Chung-liang, Director-General of the health ministry's Department of Medical Affairs, said the restrictions on hospital medical personnelwere walked back from a previous ban on travel by medical personnel to all coronavirus-affected areas.

The initial ban, announced on Sunday by CECC head Chen Shih-chung, barred them from even leaving Taiwan without special permission to travel.

The rationale given was that Taiwan could not afford to quarantine medical staff for 14 days upon their return from travel, or have them fall sick, in case of a shortage of healthcare workers.

This caused an uproar in the medical community, prompting the Taipei Doctors Union and the National Taiwan University Hospital Union to issue a stern statement on Sunday, calling for the CECC to issue details and supporting measures for the ban.

"Some people scheduled their time off six months ago, but with this cancellation (ban), does it mean their days on leave are cancelled too? Or is there a way for them to get compensated?" asked Taipei Doctors Union secretary general Liao Yu-wen on Monday.

Mr Shih, in a press conference on Tuesday, said the restrictions do not apply to all medical staff.

"We are gathering the administrators of our medical system to draft a list of necessary manpower during the outbreak prevention period, as well as discuss how long the ban should last. Those who are not on this list can travel abroad as they feel like it," said Mr Shih, who is also a member of the CECC.

The ministry officials will be meeting with the unions on Thursday to reach a consensus on monitoring medical staff, and details will be announced then, Mr Shih said.

"It's possible that we will implement the ban starting Thursday," he added.

As of Tuesday night, Taiwan has 31 confirmed cases, with one death and five discharged from the hospital. Cases 27-31 are immediate family members.

The island's youngest case was reported on Monday, an 11 year-old boy who contracted the virus from his grandfather.

On Tuesday evening, President Tsai Ing-wen signed a special law to cushion the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, allowing those quarantined to apply for compensation, and businesses affected by the outbreak to apply for subsidies.

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