The coronavirus situation in Singapore's 43 purpose-built foreign worker dormitories is "largely stable now", said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.
But the picture is "much more mixed" in the smaller factory-converted dormitories and temporary construction quarters, of which there are over a thousand, she told Parliament in a ministerial statement on the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In many dormitories, there is active case-finding and swab exercises so that we can isolate and treat infected workers, and break transmissions," she said. "Most of the workers are well and those tested positive are on the path to recovery. The full results of these efforts will, however, take time to show."
Mrs Teo said the inter-agency task force set up to support foreign workers and dormitory operators has gone about its work professionally and with a clear focus on workers' well-being.
The first phase of its work was about getting the basics right, by introducing safe distancing in dorms, and testing and moving workers in essential services out of dorms so they can continue to work.
In the second phase, the task force focused on getting medical operations right. Medical teams were deployed to the purpose-built dorms, and on-site isolation facilities were set up.
The task force must now get ready for the next phase, which will be about getting the recovery right, Mrs Teo said. She noted that this will involve building up community recovery facilities and housing recovered workers in suitable accommodation to minimise the risk of recurrent transmissions.
"We must work out a way to allow recovered and uninfected workers to go back to work safely," she said.
This will be an enormous challenge, not just in terms of logistics, she noted, adding that many workers will be rehoused and will have to get used to new friends and habits. Many employers will also have to adjust to their workers being in different locations with new arrangements.
"We will have to develop new strategies to monitor the health of the workers. For example, we plan to issue pulse oximeters and require the worker to take readings regularly," said Mrs Teo. "We will also have to plan for a more sustainable medical support operation. With telemedicine, we can still attend to unwell workers promptly."
The task force is looking after about 400,000 migrant workers, said Mrs Teo.
Outside of dormitories, another concern was that the rate of infection among workers in the construction sector was noticeably higher than that in the general community. This has not tapered off, the minister noted.
She said the Manpower Ministry and Building and Construction Authority, with the support of the Health Ministry, decided to take further precautions by requiring all work permit and S Pass holders in the construction sector, as well as their dependants, to be placed on mandatory stay-home notice for two weeks from April 20.
"Excluding the workers already in dormitories, this requirement put another 100,000 workers out of circulation," Mrs Teo said.
"While they may not be infectious, it is safer to minimise their interactions with each other and the broader community."
Mrs Teo said the stay-home notice requirement was on May 1 extended to four weeks to decisively break the cycle of transmission. It had been scheduled to end yesterday but will now end on May 18.
"In every phase, the situation has demanded a scale and speed of response that is unprecedented," Mrs Teo said. "The task force is keenly aware of its mission. They know it is critical to get things right, and to do it with heart.
"We will fulfil our commitment to the workers and pave the way for work and business to resume safely when conditions allow."