SINGAPORE - It will not be possible to allow dining in at food and beverage (F&B) outlets during phase one of Singapore's reopening after the circuit breaker, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Thursday (June 4).
Such a move would lead to a "general opening up of society" and could result in a spike in coronavirus cases, he noted, forcing the country to reinstate strict safe distancing measures.
"When you allow gatherings in F&B outlets, it means you must also allow gatherings outside (this setting)," Mr Gan said. "It doesn't make sense to only allow F&B gatherings."
He was responding to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who had pointed out that many F&B outlet owners are asking for restrictions on dining in to be eased earlier, as they may not be able to keep their businesses afloat until phase two begins.
Mr Lim suggested that dining in be allowed, as long as customers are spaced out at a safe distance.
Mr Gan said the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force that he co-chairs has discussed the issue at length.
He acknowledged that while many F&B outlets are allowed to deliver food, that is "not enough". Then there are outlets that cannot do delivery, as it is not economical for them.
However, the task force concluded that Singapore has to take a more cautious approach in the first phase of its reopening.
"We are not prepared to open up too early, too quickly, because that may result in more cases emerging and in turn will require us to reimpose some measures, and as a result defer and slow down phase two," Mr Gan said. "So we prefer to keep phase one safe, so that we can open phase two safely and, hopefully, faster."
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said last month that the authorities will make a decision by the middle of June on when to move to phase two. This means that the second phase could start before the end of this month, provided infection numbers stay "low and stable".
Mr Gan urged Singaporeans to be patient and press on with their efforts to keep community transmission of the virus low.
"We understand the anxiety that our people are facing, and are acutely aware of the economic and social impact of prolonged closure of various sectors," he said. "All of us want to get back to normal as soon as possible, and to be able to see our friends and family members whom we have not seen for some time."
FOREIGN WORKER DORMITORIES
Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) asked about the merits of easing circuit breaker measures now, given that the daily number of new Covid-19 cases in foreign worker dormitories remains in the hundreds. He also asked how infection would be contained within the dormitories.
The situation in the dormitories is now under control, Mr Gan replied, adding: "The time had come to begin our journey to resume activities, gradually and cautiously."
Dormitory operators have implemented stricter rules on entry and exit, and only workers who have recovered or tested negative will be allowed to leave the premises.
Measures have also been put in place to limit the mixing of dormitory residents from different blocks and levels, such as the staggered use of common facilities.
Workers living in dormitories will be tested regularly, and have to report their status on a daily basis.
Although the number of cases found among the migrant worker population may remain high for some time, some may be indicative of past infections rather than active cases, Mr Gan added.
THE OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE
Singapore has been monitoring the global situation and learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions, Mr Gan said in response to Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).
Its phased reopening strategy and restrictions on social gathering are similar to measures taken in New Zealand, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and Germany, he said.
For instance, New Zealand moved down from its highest alert level after taking into account factors such as the daily number of cases and the country's healthcare capacity to deal with a potential surge once restrictions are relaxed.
Hong Kong, Germany and the UK have also restricted the size of social gatherings. Hong Kong has limited gatherings to eight people, with the restriction just extended by two weeks because of a new cluster. The other two countries have limited gatherings to just two people.
"Singapore has decided to maintain tight restrictions on social gatherings and household visits in phase one, except for visits to parents and grandparents," Mr Gan said.
"We will allow gatherings of up to five persons in phase two initially, and relax this further if the situation remains under control."
Basic measures to prevent virus transmission - such as mandatory mask wearing and regular disinfection of shared surfaces - have also been put in place here and elsewhere.
Other countries have also made use of digital solutions for faster contact tracing and identification of clusters. They include Australia, China, Israel and South Korea.
"The last and most important lesson we have learnt from other countries, is that we cannot be complacent, as there is always the risk of a second wave of the virus," Mr Gan said.
The number of Covid-19 cases in the wider community has dropped from a daily average of 31 at the start of the circuit breaker, to four in the past week.
"But we should be mindful that this is probably the effect of the circuit breaker. We expect to see a rise in new community cases as the activity levels and person-to-person interactions increase after circuit breaker."
This is why Singapore has chosen to resume only economic activities that do not pose a high risk of community transmission, such as manufacturing and production operations, as well as work in office settings that have limited interaction with customers.
Those who have returned to work should not socialise with their colleagues, including at meal and break times, he said.
"As restrictions are eased and more activities resumed, it becomes even more critical that each of us exercises strong social responsibility to ensure that community transmission remains low," he added. "We need everyone to play their part: wear a mask when outside your home, maintain good personal hygiene and observe safe opening measures."