SINGAPORE - More than a year after migrant workers began being confined to their living quarters following massive Covid-19 outbreaks in dormitories, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is finalising plans to loosen restrictions on their movements.
A series of measures have been worked out, and the only thing left is to find a "safe window", said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng in an interview on Wednesday (Sept 1).
"We are actually very actively contemplating (it). In fact, every day, we work out all the different scenarios," he added.
The dormitories will also undergo a major revamp, which Dr Tan described as a "renaissance of sorts", to improve the living conditions of workers.
MOM has worked with research institutes like the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) to study the air flow in dorms, among other things, so as to come up with the optimum spacing and ventilation to prevent disease outbreaks in future.
Dr Tan disclosed these developments during an interview to mark his first 100 days helming the ministry and to speak on his priorities in the months ahead.
He said: "Covid-19 has shown us that there are areas we can further improve on to take care of their physical and mental well-being during their stay in Singapore. We have taken significant steps to do so."
Pandemic restrictions on migrant workers, who have mostly had to stay in their dormitories since April last year, have seemed more stark of late, against the increasing freedom of the general population.
As Singapore moves to ease more curbs and treat Covid-19 as endemic, people have been progressively allowed to resume normal life, with more places opening up and larger groups able to dine in restaurants.
But migrant workers are still mostly confined to their living quarters, and can leave only for work, to visit nearby recreation centres, or go for essential errands like medical appointments.
Activists and experts have warned about the impact of such long-term confinement on their mental health.
With nine in 10 residents of such dormitories already fully vaccinated - eight in 10 for the general population - infectious diseases experts also believe it is time to roll back the restrictions.
Dr Tan acknowledged that the pandemic has put workers under strain, and pledged that the situation would not last indefinitely.
He said the measures were imposed to prevent cross infections between the community and the dormitories.
While dormitories experienced an explosion of cases last year, the rate of new cases in the community is higher than that in the dormitories now, he noted.
"We've done so much work, and invested so much resources in keeping the dorms safe," he said, adding that there are now about 400 new cases among the 300,000-strong dormitory population.
"When you let them go out, you're worried about this number then starting to go up. And they have very important economic functions. Because already there's a huge shortage in the construction, marine, process industry in terms of the work, and each time they come in and get quarantined, projects get delayed. The BTO (Build-To-Order) flats - you've read about it and written about it - get delayed.
"So, for us, it is finding the right balance. It's a very tight and very fine balancing act."
Thanking the workers for their patience, he said MOM has already worked out a whole series of measures on how restrictions will be loosened.
He added: "The moment you open up, you cannot throttle back and say that 'oh, we're going to stop them again'. So, it's how we calibrate it, how we take small steps to let them out. I think that is something that we should just watch that space for."
Recently, infections among migrant workers spread into clusters at seven dormitories, with 266 workers with Covid-19 in total.
Dr Tan said MOM has been closely monitoring the development of the clusters, and found that vaccination helps prevent serious illness in the workers. Not a single infected worker has needed hospitalisation or oxygen support, he said.
The crowded and unsanitary conditions at the dormitories, which were a big factor in the outbreaks last year and had come under criticism, will also become a thing of the past, with an overhaul planned for the "dorm universe".
Giving a glimpse of how the dorms of the future will look like, Dr Tan said there will be different, self-contained zones which can be ring-fenced should an outbreak happen, so that fewer workers are affected.
There will also be regional medical centres serving these dorms, and recreation centres are also being contemplated, he added.
To make the dormitories more resilient to infections, MOM has worked with research institutions to investigate the transmission rate of Covid-19 in the shared dorm toilets, and also come up with mathematical models of how far apart beds should be spaced and how many people can share a toilet safely, among other things.
"So, these dorms of the future will not be infection-proof, but they will offer a higher level of resilience and resistance to a future infectious pandemic outbreak," he added.