Govt push to boost hygiene levels as coronavirus fight intensifies

New norm in battle entails benchmarks on cleaning public places and new social habits

Under the SG Clean campaign, hawker centres and food stalls can get a quality mark to show they have met enhanced hygiene and cleaning standards. PHOTO: ST FILE

An ambitious exercise has been launched to take cleanliness and public hygiene to the next level and to change social norms so that they become Singapore's first line of defence against current and future infection outbreaks.

This means that not only will new benchmarks be put in place to keep public places clean, but people will also be nudged to pick up new habits and give up some old ones to stop the spread of disease.

In addition, new rules later this year will require hawker centres, schools, childcare facilities and eldercare centres to be cleaned at prescribed minimum frequencies, with owners responsible for the cleanliness of their spaces.

The new SG Clean Taskforce, headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, has been set up to raise hygiene standards across the nation.

The wider challenge will be to persuade residents to wash their hands with soap regularly, take their temperature daily and use serving spoons while sharing food.

"We need to step up cleanliness and hygiene, to make this our new norm. This is our best way forward because this is how we can carry on with our lives," Mr Masagos said at a news conference yesterday.

Also speaking on this new norm in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the co-chairmen of the multi-ministry taskforce battling the spread of the virus noted that with Covid-19 now spreading rapidly around the world, Singaporeans would have to brace themselves for the health, social and economic impact this would have.

More cases of the disease could be imported and, as has happened elsewhere, there are likely to be deaths from it here too, warned Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

Further steps to manage the inflow of people might also be needed, while existing border restrictions might be relooked in the light of developments.

But the most immediate way to deal with the situation is for people to help themselves by stepping up efforts to keep their surroundings clean.

Mr Gan said social norms "are in fact the first line of defence, rather than border controls".

"Even if you have restrictions on travel, you still have Singaporeans coming back; you cannot stop them from coming back to Singapore. Therefore, personal hygiene is the most important."

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong added: "We are not helpless in this scenario."

Social and individual responsibility - even through actions which may seem simple - will effectively slow down the spread of the virus.

Current clusters in Singapore have developed from close contact among people, such as at religious or social gatherings.

The stepped-up effort comes on the back of the SG Clean campaign launched on Feb 16 to raise cleanliness and safeguard public health amid the coronavirus outbreak

On its part, the Government is making sure that hygiene standards are up to scratch - that public toilets are clean and dry, and stocked with soap, for instance.

The idea is that the authorities set the standards, and owners of premises such as hawker centres, schools, factories and malls commit to maintaining them.

But individuals, too, must do their bit, Mr Masagos stressed, and make new habits a way of life.

This entails thinking about things differently. For example, pieces of tissue paper should be considered small "biohazards", he pointed out, and people should dispose of these items themselves, rather than leaving them for cleaners. At hawker centres, people are encouraged to eat on their trays so that food drops on trays - not tables.

The effort to change habits is aimed at addressing future outbreaks, too. "SG Clean is not a one-time exercise for Covid-19," said Mr Masagos.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2020, with the headline Govt push to boost hygiene levels as coronavirus fight intensifies. Subscribe