SINGAPORE - The take-up of the Covid-19 booster shot has been high among migrant workers here, with 88 per cent of those eligible choosing to get the additional dose.
This includes workers living in dormitories, as well as construction, marine and process workers living in other types of accommodation.
Workers are eligible for the additional dose 150 days after their second jab, and the booster exercise for them kicked off in October at the Kranji vaccination centre.
But even with the high booster take-up rate and the already high vaccination rate among dorm residents, more time is needed to understand the new Omicron variant before restrictions can be eased further, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said on Thursday (Dec 16).
"We're monitoring the situation very closely," he said in an interview ahead of International Migrants Day, which falls on Saturday.
Dr Tan noted that preliminary data out of South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, seems to show that those who are vaccinated have only a very mild form of the illness when infected with the new strain.
"We hope that as more studies come out, and that indeed (Omicron cases) are actually asymptomatic or very mild, we don't have to impose tight restrictions," he said.
More workers have been allowed to leave their dorms to visit public places since Dec 3. However, while 3,000 a day can do so - up from 3,000 a week - the utilisation of these community visits is also not yet close to full, Dr Tan added.
"Let's utilise what we have opened up," he said, while acknowledging that organising these community visits still requires a fair amount of logistics.
Requests to go out on these visits were also significantly higher on the weekends than on weekdays, as employers have had trouble staggering rest days, Dr Tan said.
Some workers, at the request of their contractor employers, also forgo their rest days to work overtime on projects to meet deadlines.
Many workers agree to this so that they can earn more money to send home - an observation also made by employers and dorm operators that The Straits Times spoke with.
Workers rely on overtime pay to bolster their basic wages and many have been trying to make up for lower earnings last year when construction work ground to a halt due to Covid-19, they told ST in earlier interviews.
Dorm operators affirmed that relatively few residents have taken the chance to go out.
This could be because workers are worried about catching Covid-19 or are unfamiliar with the application process on an online platform managed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
S11 Dormitories managing director Johnathan Cheah said employers may also be unwilling to send workers on these visits because of health and safety fears.
Westlite Accommodation, which manages nine dormitories with more than 28,000 residents, told ST that only 300 joined the community visits last month, according to its records.
Back when the quota for community visits was 3,000 a week, just 80 to 90 residents of the 14,000-bed PPT Lodge 1B dorm in Seletar took part in visits to Little India and Geylang Serai for the entire period from Oct 30 to Dec 3.
When asked if MOM would consider aligning the movement restrictions on migrant workers with the rest of Singapore, or if the easing could be done at a faster pace, Dr Tan reiterated the importance of finding a safe window.
He said that from as early as December last year, MOM has been planning to ease restrictions, but each time, a new stumbling block would come up.
"When we planned for it in May, the huge outbreak of Delta came about. Then we tried to plan it for August, (but) we had multiple outbreaks."
Dr Tan added: "We have never ever backed down from our policy... From the time I had the availability of these vaccines for migrant workers, which was actually also quite early on, our main focus was to ease them into the community.
"We wanted to know, what if (migrant workers) catch the Delta variant? Would the vaccinations then protect them?
"Everything that we do has to be based on knowledge or data, statistics and facts."
The upshot is that in the past three months, the number of migrant workers hospitalised due to Covid-19 has been extremely low.
As at Thursday, just one worker was in hospital. With dedicated recovery facilities set up, dorm cases have also not been a major burden to the healthcare system.
Dr Tan said MOM hopes to continue to use the same approach for Omicron as it did for the Delta variant. "We will certainly be very measured, given what we have learnt and what we have understood thus far."
The ministry has been encouraging employers to think out of the box to find ways to stagger workers' rest days so that more of them can go out for leisure, he added.
"It's not that we have not contemplated more easing. But if we allow all 300,000 workers to all come out on the same day on a Sunday and everyone just adopts a carnival-type atmosphere... It means that we have never learnt from this pandemic."