Give rule-abiding food operators greater leeway to fight virus better

F&B businesses could benefit from some flexibility in Covid-19 controls and more trust in self-regulation

Suppose that you are a royal head chef in a kingdom ravaged by a mysterious disease.

One day, an edict is handed down saying that to fight the evil bug, free soup will be served up to nourish each and every man and woman in the land.

You pull out a recipe, round up all the cooks in the land, and ask for your peers' support. Instantly, a cacophony of voices erupts: How salty must the soup be? I am a baker, I prefer to serve bread rather than soup. Will we be held responsible if an ogre slips in, dressed as a man, and drinks our soup? How many carrots do we need to order? When should we stop?

Citizens' lives are at stake, so you serve up the first answers that come to mind: Ogres have to declare that they are ogres. Salt must be measured by the spoon, not pinching fingers. We will stop ordering carrots when all citizens report that they have had soup. Of course, many might drink the soup at home and not say a word.

In any case, you declare, raising a threatening finger for effect, any cook caught not following the recipe, or serving an ogre, will have his pots seized, be shackled, and paraded for all his townsmen to see.

The cooks sigh collectively, then disperse half-heartedly to their respective towns to make their soup.

After 20 months of painful curbs on businesses, food and beverage operators are feeling a little like the cooks in this story, even as they are working more closely than ever with the Government which has rolled out wave after wave of controls to fight Covid-19 infections.

"Operators all understood and recognised the need for the circuit breaker as well as the subsequent cap on dine-in numbers to lower the rate of transmission," said Mr Colin Chen, a co-owner at The Refinery and Hello Arigato.

"However, the last few rounds of restrictions were abrupt and lacked clear validation, and they severely impacted the F&B industry, crippling many businesses," said Mr Chen. "To exacerbate the problem, it was disheartening to find out that other high-risk activities and businesses were offered a different set of standards."

The Government's curbs and warnings have been more pronounced for the dining industry than other sectors such as gyms and retail. It has also been relentless in wielding its stick, threatening "immediate closures" for restaurants found to have lapses in controlling errant diners, even if the customers were the ones who ignored directives. It will take no excuse such as the breach in the restaurant being a first, it said just over a week ago.

The result is an industry operating constantly on tenterhooks. Speaking for the SaveFnBSG social media group that represents over 500 operators, restaurateur Loh Lik Peng of Unlisted Collection group said: "The Government has said it will exercise some flexibility. But actually, none of us in the industry knows what that really means."

On the ground, one social distancing ambassador could interpret the rules "quite loosely" and another, "very literally". He traces the issue to the measures' scope for interpretation. "Ambassadors are also human beings," he added.

More than 600 F&B outlets have been issued fines and over 300 suspended for lapses since the controls began in June last year.

The irony of the new curbs, said the group's co-representative, 1-Group's founder Joseph Ong, is that they came about because the Government was actually being receptive to the industry's calls, such as allowing five members of the same family to dine together.

Tomorrow, the curbs will be further eased to allow five fully vaccinated diners of any household to sit together.

Last Monday, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged the frustration with the "start-stop" dribble of measures to date, but appealed for understanding about the challenges in trying to avoid it.

Indeed, the Government has been responsive to businesses' demands, and the level of collaboration during this crisis has exceeded all others, said Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.

"There has been a lot of willingness and commitment from both sides to try their best to give each other accurate information, discuss positions, and try and support each other," he said. The top-down approach affords "agility" in the battle to not let the virus spin out of control.

For the F&B industry, he said: "It's better than the situation in which they are restricted and they cannot even operate, right?"

However, with policymakers telling cooks how to cook, instructions that can be challenged are inevitable. This is compounded by the fact that these cooks have different kitchens, different levels of skills and competencies, and, of course, different personalities.

The Restaurant Association of Singapore said it has proposed a "self-regulating regime" to the authorities. Its president Andrew Kwan made an appeal on Thursday to the Government to allow up to eight vaccinated diners to a table to help the industry get back on its feet.

Self-regulation does not mean lax regulation. For example, the industry already regulates itself in food safety, said SaveFnBSG's Mr Ong. "Every restaurant, every bar, we have to go through an SFA (Singapore Food Agency) inspection, we have to have rules, certification for our guides, keep a certain level of hygiene, and maintain that level of hygiene.

"We are not inspected every day. Some will flout the rules, some will fail during periods of time, but the majority will fulfil the rules," he said. "People who are doing genuine food and beverage business will put controls in place and be very transparent."

With about 13,000 establishments serving up experiences ranging from fast food to fine dining to nightlife, and a virulent bug to fight, operators accept that it is impossible for the Government to enact measures that please all.

But some carrots, instead of sticks, would be welcome in this long, arduous pandemic war.

Mr Wong Ying Ming, the other co-founder of The Refinery and Hello Arigato, said: "Instead of focusing on the bad sheep, the spotlight could be shone on businesses that have done their part well and allow them to share their best practices.

"Where there are punishments and fines, there should also be trust and business support for those who have been responsible and diligent in keeping to the regulations."

He added: "With proper buy-in, business owners would better understand the rationale behind the measures and help to communicate the intention of the Government. In that way, plans might be rolled out more efficiently with a higher rate of compliance and cooperation."

As the royal head chef, you wonder if you should re-examine the cogency of your instructions.

And you begin to question: If, despite the best efforts of compliant cooks, an ogre slips through the doors, does it warrant punishment as harsh as seizing crockery, shaming and shackling?

If you could only work through these issues, you are sure, you and the cooks from your nation will overcome what lies ahead in this battle. And all the men and women in the country will have the best soup.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 21, 2021, with the headline 'Give rule-abiding food operators greater leeway to fight virus better'. Subscribe