The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will come down harder on com-panies that have not made serious efforts to put in place work-from-home arrangements, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said yesterday.
Speaking at a multi-ministry task force briefing, she warned that MOM is looking at amending laws to increase potential penalties, including imposing fines and stop-work orders, for businesses that fail to follow its advisories, prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
She also said there will be a five-fold increase in the number of enforcement officers conducting checks on companies to more than 100.
"Telecommuting is a critical part of safe distancing, particularly in workplaces... There is a lot of scope for us to do more, especially the private sector firms," she said.
"MOM will be stepping up enforcement in the coming weeks. We will look at the nature of work and make an assessment... We will require companies to up their game."
Recommendations announced earlier had called on employers to adopt telecommuting where possible, stagger work hours for employees who need to be in the office, and reduce close contact at work.
Last Friday, MOM said it had issued 34 stop-work orders and 36 remedial orders over four days to companies that did not meet safe distancing standards.
Mrs Teo said public sector organisations are taking the lead in adapting to the changed work environment amid the pandemic, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Infocomm Media Development Authority allowing 90 per cent of their employees to telecommute.
She said that while some private companies have done "exceedingly well", she estimates that most in the Central Business District are still recalling 60 per cent of their workers back to the office.
"I want to emphasise this. Employers must allow employees to work from home as far as is reasonably practicable... This should be for all timings and all days, not just sometimes and some days."
She sought to reassure companies that a "measured approach" will be taken when it comes to meting out punishment in what is already a period of economic hardship for many businesses.
"I should say it is not our intention to simply issue a stop-work order without considering the circumstances of the companies.
"We are looking for evidence that companies have made serious attempts to implement stay-at-home, telecommuting arrangements, but we are also mindful that this is not always possible," said the minister, citing manufacturing companies.
"But one thing is very clear - 100 per cent is better than 80, 80 is better than 60... So even if companies have implemented some telecommuting measures, we will ask the important question of whether we can do more," she said.
Coronavirus: 7 points to note beyond the headline numbers
Another 47 new Covid-19 cases were reported in Singapore yesterday, but the briefing by the multi-ministry task force went beyond the headline numbers.
Here are seven points highlighted during the session that explain why Singapore is doing what it is doing, and indicate what the future holds for the country's efforts to overcome the coronavirus.
TOURISTS FROM SOME CHINESE CITIES COULD BE ALLOWED ENTRY INTO SINGAPORE
Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said that if current rates of infection in China continue, Singapore could consider lifting travel restrictions for tourists from some cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai.
In recent days, the number of cases in China has plateaued, with almost all new cases imported by returning citizens. Sunday's figure of 31 new cases were all imported save for one. And zero new local cases had been registered in several instances before that.
Mr Wong said any changes to Singapore's travel restrictions will be based strictly on data and evidence, with priority placed on keeping the country's borders safe.
NO WIDESPREAD COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION
Singapore's top medical authority, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Health Ministry, said local transmissions have occurred in a limited context that is traceable.
On whether Singapore is on the verge of widespread community transmission, he said the success of contact tracing so far has given the authorities confidence that they can continue to account for how the virus is spreading.
The virus is not spreading in a random and uncontrolled fashion, he said, adding that he believes many of the established clusters are themselves linked.
HOTELS FOR RETURNEES ON STAY-HOME NOTICE NOT AN INDULGENCE
Mr Wong said providing dedicated facilities, including hotels, for returnees from the United States and Britain serving their 14-day stay-home notices is not an indulgence and certainly not unnecessary spending by the Government.
"It is a critical health measure," he said, noting that the Government would like to secure such an arrangement for all returnees but is still checking if there are enough beds.
"We will spend what is necessary to keep Singaporeans safe," he said.
NO ONE HAS TESTED POSITIVE A SECOND TIME
As for reports on Chinese patients testing positive for Covid-19 a second time after recovering, Prof Mak said this has so far not happened in Singapore.
He said in some overseas cases, patients were discharged when their symptoms cleared up, rather than after ascertaining they had shed the virus.
In Singapore, individuals are discharged after two consecutive negative results. The health authorities also do follow-ups and will ask patients to return, if required.
Prof Mak said no patient has been called back so far.
MASK ADVISORY, LIKE ALL MEASURES, UNDER REVIEW
When asked if the Government is considering changing its advice that only those who feel unwell or come into close contact with patients wear masks, Prof Mak said this, like the effectiveness of safe distancing measures, is under review.
He said the recommendations will be made public after the review is completed.
He added that the decision is based not just on evidence from other countries, but also on literature and Singapore's own experience.
ANTIBODY TESTS COULD BE ROLLED OUT SOON
Some countries have deployed antibody tests, which test if an individual has developed immunity to the virus, as part of their arsenal to fight the virus.
Prof Mak said these tests are being validated, but they should be used in a different way from the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests that doctors are using now.
For one thing, antibody tests have a limited role in diagnosis, as it takes the body at least four days after infection to produce antibodies, which is too late for the purposes of quick detection and contact tracing.
But they could be used to determine when a patient can be discharged, and when the time comes, guidelines will be given to doctors here on how best to use them.
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Mr Wong said success does not mean zero cases, but the stopping of further transmissions that present themselves as unlinked cases or new clusters.
He also warned that Singapore's borders remain porous as it is an international air hub, which means the possibility of new cases - and with that, new connected infections - remains high.
Correction note: The article previously said that the number of enforcement officers conducting checks on companies is currently 100. This is incorrect. Instead, the number of enforcement officers will increase to more than 100. We are sorry for the error.