Coronavirus pandemic

Safe distancing may be new normal on return to workplaces

The new guidelines will build upon existing measures to ensure safe distancing in workplaces for workers in essential services. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

A safe distancing inspector in every workplace, staggered hours to prevent congregation of workers, and measures barring staff from socialising in the pantry, rest areas and during lunch breaks.

This could be the new normal for workplaces when workers gradually return to their offices or worksites after the circuit breaker lifts, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday, as he outlined how containment measures for Covid-19 will become part of new workplace safety and health standards or guidelines.

They will expand on existing ones that are in place for workers in essential services who are still going to workplaces during the circuit breaker period, added Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

To ensure that Singapore's overall strategy for containing the Covid-19 spread remains effective, these guidelines will also be complemented by a new testing regime that will involve a substantial scaling up of such tests.

Earlier this week, industry players told ST that increased testing could be a key enabler for the country as it looks to gradually lift the circuit breaker measures.

This will ensure that any new cases can be detected quickly.

Technology solutions will also be implemented in workplaces, so that there will be better tracking and monitoring if a confirmed case emerges in the workplace, added Mr Wong. "These are a whole series of new protocols and measures that we are already planning, and (which) we will put in place as we get nearer (to) the end of the circuit breaker," he said.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who also co-chairs the task force, added that such standards would have to be differentiated across individual sectors, depending on the risk assessment for each sector.

The construction sector, for instance, which has a number of worksites that have emerged as Covid-19 clusters, is one of the areas that the task force is "very concerned" about, said Mr Gan.

Measures at construction sites will likely vary significantly from those in offices, he said.

A research project led by a team at the Singapore University of Technology and Design's (SUTD) Data-Driven Innovation Lab had predicted that the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak here - where cases began spiking with a surge in dormitory infections - will end completely around June 28. The prediction was made based on data from March 28 to the present.

Asked about this at the press conference, the Ministry of Health's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said that the data used by the SUTD team was very broad-level data that may not necessarily represent the actual way in which an outbreak progresses within a country.

Mr Wong also said that it would be premature for anyone, whether in Singapore or elsewhere in the world, to assume that the world will be free from Covid-19 once it passes this particular wave.

"No one can say that, and experts are already worrying about a second wave of infection around the world that may well coincide with the flu season and may be even more devastating than what we have today," he said.

Mr Gan added that while the number of community cases is coming down, Singapore is not out of the woods yet. It is important to focus on keeping the number of community infections low as there are still reports of unlinked cases.

The basic posture has to be that everyone is in for a long fight, stressed Mr Wong.

"There will well be recurring waves of infection that we have to deal with, and even if we get over this current wave in Singapore today, we have to remain vigilant and relax or adjust the measures very gradually," he said.

"It only takes one case, one hidden case, one cryptic case to cause new clusters."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2020, with the headline Safe distancing may be new normal on return to workplaces. Subscribe