Singapore watching rapidly evolving global Covid-19 outbreak, is prepared to do more if needed: DPM Heng

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Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was at Parkroyal on Kitchener Road on Tuesday (Feb 25), to see how the hotel has coped with the coronavirus situation and other innovations it has taken on.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during a visit to Parkroyal on Kitchener Road Hotel on Feb 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The Government is watching the rapidly evolving global Covid-19 outbreak closely and is ready to do more should the situation call for it, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Tuesday (Feb 25).

He told reporters that measures to relieve businesses and workers in the Budget were a very calibrated response that is appropriate for the current situation.

"It is difficult at this point to predict how quickly this virus outbreak will be contained, and the knock-on impact that it can have on the rest of the economy," he added.

"But we have the measures, we have the resources and we can do more, and we will be prepared to do more when the situation warrants it."

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, was on a visit to Parkroyal on Kitchener Road Hotel to look at how one sector affected by the outbreak was coping. The hospitality industry here has been among the worst and most immediately hit by the virus situation, with a sharp dip in tourist arrivals.

He said he was glad to see the hotel making the best use of the downtime to speed up its transformation - renovating the hotel, redesigning jobs and processes, and retraining workers to be more productive.

And he hoped more companies would make use of the support measures in the Budget, announced last Tuesday, to address both the short-term challenges stemming from the virus outbreak as well as longer-term ones to do with the evolving global economy.

"This is a very good time to make use of this down time to raise our skills and capabilities, as well as the quality of our operations, so that when the upturn comes, we will all emerge stronger," he said.

The Budget set aside $6.4 billion for measures to support businesses, households and front-line agencies to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak. The bulk of this is in the $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package - which includes a Jobs Support Scheme and enhancements to the Wage Credit Scheme to keep workers employed.

There is also additional help for sectors that are more directly affected, such as tourism, where measures include a 15 per cent property tax rebate for qualifying commercial properties such as shops within hotel buildings, or at tourist attractions.

Asked about feedback from retailers that such relief isn't direct, Mr Heng said there are many direct measures, which the Government will be following up on over the next few months. As for the tax rebates, he urged landlords to pass on savings to their tenants, noting that CapitaLand has done so.

"I hope that many more will take that example. The ministry is looking at this, and I will be addressing this more fully during the Budget Debate," he added.

The Budget also includes measures for companies to transform and grow, and Mr Heng spoke to several Parkroyal staff and managers during his visit.

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He noted the hotel's plans involved retraining staff so they could be cross-deployed to take on new or complementary roles.

"They have been thinking ahead: Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, they have already embarked on this transformation, and now they are making the best use of this time to accelerate this transformation," said Mr Heng.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during a visit to Parkroyal on Kitchener Road Hotel on Feb 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

One of the workers he met was head houseman Johnny Lim, who shared with reporters how every time a guest requested an extra bed, he had to go to a storeroom on the hotel's eighth floor to wheel one to the guest's room.

"If the wheels got stuck, we would have to lift the bed and carry it," said Mr Lim, 67, tapping his shoulder.

But his workload has eased significantly since the hotel started on its transformation plan last March. Since the renovation, most rooms now have rollaway beds built in, and Mr Lim can now turn down extra beds much more quickly.

This has saved the work of four room attendants, who can be deployed to other tasks, said Ms Dorcas Ching, the hotel's assistant director of human capital development.

Like many hotels in Singapore, Parkroyal said it has experienced a drastic drop in business since the coronavirus outbreak hit in late January. Occupancy has fallen by nearly two-thirds, which prompted the hotel to close six floors, adopt a lean manpower strategy, and encourage staff to go on leave.

At the same time, the hotel has stepped up its preventive maintenance regime and used the downtime to overhaul air-conditioning, piping and other renovation and repair work to prepare for the eventual upturn.

The hotel's general manager Mr Richard Ong said measures in this year's Budget that help defray wage costs and wage increases have been welcomed by the industry, as payroll costs make up the largest component of hotels' fixed costs.

"At this stage, every little bit helps," he said. "I know all of us want more, but under the circumstances, what the Government has given is already quite substantial."

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