Coronavirus: Singapore

Healthcare institutions to ensure enough staff before okaying leave

There will be adequate manpower to handle any potential surge in virus cases

Travel restrictions for healthcare workers here were lifted last Tuesday but it is unlikely that many of them will be going overseas soon.

All three public healthcare clusters in Singapore told The Sunday Times they would consider leave applications from their staff carefully to ensure operations would not be further impacted by reduced manpower.

The Ministry of Health's decision to lift the suspension of overseas leave application for all healthcare workers comes as Singapore is seeing very high numbers of hospitalised and severely ill Covid-19 patients.

Covid-19 restrictions have also been extended until Nov 21.

Mrs Olivia Tay, the group chief human resource officer at the National Healthcare Group (NHG), said the group would need to ensure adequate manpower to meet potential spikes in Covid-19 cases.

"Approval for overseas leave will therefore be considered based on the staffing needs of each institution," she added.

Professor Fong Kok Yong, SingHealth's deputy group chief executive of medical and clinical services, said supervisors have to ensure there is sufficient manpower to accommodate a local surge in Covid-19 cases and a balanced rotation of staff in their departments.

"This is to ensure that there is no compromise to patient care as our staff take turns to go on leave to rest and recharge, or return home to see their families.

"The application for overseas leave will be no different from usual leave applications, where staff will discuss their planned leave periods with their supervisors while adhering to their institution's leave policies," he said.

At the National University Health System cluster, a spokesman said it encourages staff to plan ahead, and that foreign staff who can make the trip home after a long separation from their families would be given priority for overseas travel.

The spokesman said that with early and careful planning within departments, "we hope to allow as many of our staff to take local or overseas leave, so that staff can take turns to have a break while ensuring minimal disruption to service and care during this period".

IHH Healthcare Singapore chief operating officer Noel Yeo said that a small number of nurses and other staff have taken overseas leave since the start of the year "on an exceptional basis - mainly for family and compassionate reasons".

With the recent lifting of travel restrictions, it is "fully cognisant that leave has to be taken in turns to ensure essential services and patient care are not compromised", he said.

Healthcare workers told ST in previous interviews they were feeling fatigued or burned out, having been on the front line of the fight against the pandemic for more than 20 months.

The recent surge in Covid-19 cases has also added to their workload.

To conserve manpower, one cluster has a seven-day limit on overseas leave taken for leisure travel, The Sunday Times understands.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said manpower in healthcare would be beefed up in various ways so that workers can be given a respite towards the end of the year.

Healthcare institutions and the authorities have acknowledged the sacrifices made by healthcare workers, especially as some have not been back home to see their families since the pandemic started.

Prof Fong, who is also the co-chair of the SingHealth disease outbreak task force, said it hoped that the lifting of the overseas leave suspension would be a welcome change for healthcare workers as Singapore transits to living with Covid-19.

NHG's Mrs Tay said it encourages staff to take short breaks locally to rest and recharge, and has granted overseas leave on compassionate grounds.

Meanwhile, travel agency Chan Brothers is offering healthcare workers a special $100 discount on tour packages and said it has received inquiries about tours, with a group of local doctors having booked one.

Dynasty Travel also said it has been receiving more inquiries from healthcare staff.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 24, 2021, with the headline 'Healthcare institutions to ensure enough staff before okaying leave'. Subscribe