SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Private-hire car (PHC) drivers can no longer make private arrangements to offer rides outside the ride-hailing applications after the list of essential services was reduced on Tuesday (April 21) as part of the latest measures to fight Covid-19.
Only rides made through apps such as Grab and Gojek are allowed after the exclusion of private arrangements and chat groups.
Health experts approached by The New Paper welcomed the move as it would ease concerns over contact tracing and safe distancing during rides.
Unlike private arrangements, rides booked through the apps will have contact details of customers so they can be identified via contact tracing should an infection occur.
Another concern before Tuesday's changes was PHC drivers being allowed to offer carpooling services privately on chat groups.
This could mean several passengers from different households sharing a car with the driver without safe distancing.
This was despite carpooling being made illegal last Thursday for private car owners, and Grab stopping its two carpooling services - GrabShare in February and GrabHitch at the start of the circuit breaker on April 7.
The largest carpooling platform here, with about 56,000 members, is Telegram chat group SGHitch, which sees hundreds of offers and requests for rides daily.
When carpooling became illegal, with offenders facing a fine of up to $10,000 and/or jail of up to six months, the chat group was shut down.
But it was soon reopened, with a warning that carpooling was illegal and members should decide on their own what to do with the information in the chat group.
Despite the latest rules, the chat group, since renamed Covid-19 Lockdown SG Hitch, was still active yesterday, with requests continuing to come in from drivers and riders.
Dr Hsu Li Yang of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said that while the risk of infection remains small when drivers pick up passengers, it is nonetheless still a risk.
HARDER TO TRACE
In the event of an infection, privately arranged rides would probably increase the number of unlinked cases as contact tracing would be harder because the driver is unlikely to have the contact details of his fares and vice-versa, he added.
Infectious disease physician Asok Kurup said picking up passengers from multiple locations would increase the risk of infection in the community as they could take the virus back to their homes.
Dr Asok said: "It would run counter to the circuit breaker measures that have been put in place to reduce the spread of the virus if people from different households can easily be in a car together through these rides.
"It is good that they (privately arranged rides) are no longer classified as an essential service because people should just stick to ride-hailing platforms, so it is easier for contact tracing."
Agreeing with him, infectious disease specialist Leong Hoe Nam, encouraged drivers to abide by the new rules as the number of unlinked cases has not fallen fast enough despite the circuit breaker being in place for more than two weeks.
Dr Leong said: "I think to really break the cycle of infection, it is necessary that we tighten our interactions with people, including having hitch rides because the passengers would not be in a safe distance from each other."
Lawyer Chooi Jing Yen, partner at law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, told TNP that under normal circumstances, it would not be illegal for PHC drivers to pick up passengers outside of their ride-hailing platforms, be it direct trips or hitch rides.
They would be allowed to do so if they were designated as essential services, but it is unclear if they would be breaking safe distancing laws, he added.
"With the new measures, as long as the ride is not booked through a ride-hailing platform like Grab or Gojek, these drivers would be operating a non-essential service, and that would be unlawful," said Mr Chooi.
A Grab spokesman said last night: "We welcome the new tightened measures to stop all private carpooling arrangements in a move to further protect the health and safety of all, and urge our driver-partners to abide by the new guidelines."
Before the new measures were announced, Gojek had urged its drivers to provide ride-hailing services only through its platform - not only for the sake of contact tracing, but also for service support when incidents happen.
When told that Gojek drivers might still be active in carpooling chat groups, its spokesman said: "We will investigate the matter and take action if required, which could include a suspension from our platform."