SINGAPORE - With just 500 workers being allowed to visit Little India each week as part of a long-delayed pilot scheme that kicked off on Wednesday (Sept 15), the onus will be on dormitory operators to select eligible workers who can go out into the community.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will identify which dorms are eligible for inclusion in the scheme and roster them accordingly, said Mr Tung Yui Fai, chief of MOM's Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, which oversees migrant worker dorms.
In an interview ahead of the first community visit of migrant workers to Little India, Mr Tung shared more details about how the pilot scheme will work, why it is happening only now, and what the next steps could look like.
MOM said last week that only workers who are fully vaccinated will be eligible for community visits. For a start, those selected can visit Little India on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for up to six hours.
There will be two time slots each day - in the morning and afternoon. About 80 workers will be able to go out in each time slot.
The workers must live in dorms that have had no Covid-19 cases in the previous two weeks. The facilities must also have at least a 90 per cent vaccination rate and good safe living measures in place.
The first batch of workers to visit Little India on Wednesday came from Westlite Mandai dormitory, which saw a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases that was closed earlier this month.
Asked which other dorms have been selected for the visits this week, Mr Tung was tight-lipped. New cases could surface in the dorms that are next on the list, he said.
"Until the day itself, it can still change," he added.
In the initial stages, Mr Tung said MOM will allocate each time slot to workers from the same dorm for easy administration.
"We start small so that we can understand the mechanics of it. Currently, it is quite simple - we identify the dorm and we try to fill the bus," he said.
Chartered buses will take workers from their dorm to Little India and back, and each bus will ferry only workers from the same dorm.
There will be two drop-off and pickup points in Tekka Lane and Race Course Lane.
Before leaving the dorm, workers must test themselves using antigen rapid test (ART) kits.
They must also self-administer an ART three days after the visit.
MOM will pay for the transport and the ART, Mr Tung added.
Workers are free to move around the designated zone but some will be put in charge of taking attendance and facilitating communications.
The workers will be given wristbands so that they can pray at places of worship during designated time slots and enjoy discounts at shops in the area.
Mr Tung stressed that the tags are for identification and administrative purposes, and are not meant to single workers out as dorm residents.
Workers who flout the rules may be blacklisted from the scheme for a period of time, Mr Tung said, but he is confident that workers will comply.
"In the past year, we have asked them to follow whatever measures that we have put in place, whether it is safe living measures or the vaccination programme, and the majority of workers were very compliant."
The workers will be briefed on the rules they need to follow, including prevailing safe management measures. They are also not allowed to leave their designated area in Little India - a 750m by 650m zone bounded by Bukit Timah Road, Jalan Besar Road, Kitchener Road and Race Course Road.
"We decided on this plot because it has all the amenities and attractions for workers within walking distance," Mr Tung said.
Mr Tung said the pilot scheme is an important first step, although he acknowledged the criticism that it may be too small to be meaningful for the more than 200,000 workers living in dorms here right now.
"We are in a period of time when the number of infections is going up, which is why we have to be cautious," he said.
The pilot scheme, Mr Tung added, is meant to give the authorities confidence that the visits can be done safely, that the location selected meets the needs of the workers, and there is support from the community, employers and dorm operators.
"Once we have all this in place, it will be much easier for us to scale up," he said.
Vaccinations were the key that allowed MOM to put the pilot scheme into motion more than eight months after it was mooted in December last year, Mr Tung said.
This was coupled with the success of a "multi-layered strategy", which includes rostered routine testing, wastewater testing and safe living measures.
This strategy drove down the number of dorm cases last year, and contained a spate of re-infections in dorms this year as Singapore began to open up its economy.
"We never had the same explosion of clusters that we saw in April last year," Mr Tung added.
It only took a few weeks for MOM to finalise the plan for the community visit pilot scheme once Singapore hit an 80 per cent vaccination rate.
By then, more than 90 per cent of dorm residents were already fully vaccinated.
MOM said last week that it will assess the scheme in a month's time.
Mr Tung said this is so that the ministry can collect enough data, but operational changes can be made along the way.
For example, MOM could adjust the timings of the visits if needed.
MOM is also open to suggestions on other locations it can include in the pilot scheme, Mr Tung said.
He highlighted several factors that will determine if the scheme will be expanded.
It remains to be seen whether workers going out will bring back more infections into the dorms.
If there are new Covid-19 cases, MOM will also look at how many require hospitalisation or are admitted into intensive care.
"This is a very important factor not just for migrant workers, but also the community at large," Mr Tung added.
He said MOM will also consider new variants of concern and changes to vaccine efficacy. It will also take into account reactions from the community, and will conduct post-visit surveys with workers and collect feedback from stakeholders.
Besides the community visits, Mr Tung said MOM is bringing back more activities in dorms, such as live performances.
It also wants to do more to make migrant worker recreation centres more vibrant.
There are plans to allow workers to visit these centres more frequently, and introduce regular activities at the centres, such as yoga classes or English lessons..
However, looking beyond the brief visits to the community and the plans to jazz up dormitory life, the picture ahead remains murky for migrant workers here.
Asked when MOM might consider lifting movement restrictions unconditionally, Mr Tung said it will "move and decide along the way".
"We have always maintained that our goal is not to impose any more restrictions than necessary. We do it only because of healthcare considerations, safety considerations," he added.
"So, as long as the conditions allow us to do more, we will do more."
Correction note: An earlier version of this story stated that the designated area for migrant workers is bounded by Upper Bukit Timah Road. It should be Bukit Timah Road. We are sorry for the error.