Teething issues, concerns over penalties as F&B businesses gear up for staff's mandatory Covid-19 testing

Smaller businesses, such as hawkers, who are unable to organise supervised self-swab tests on their own, have the option of getting swabbed at centralised Quick Test Centres. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - As food and beverage and other businesses in high-risk settings gear up for mandatory 14-day Covid-19 testing to become a part of their operations from July 15, some have faced teething issues familiarising themselves with the new testing regime.

Several F&B players have also expressed concern over the fallout for the already beleaguered industry if testing standards are not met.

With more Covid-19 safety measures set to ease from July 12, a fast and easy testing (FET) regime has been progressively rolled out since June 21 for businesses in settings with unmasked clients and patrons, such as dine-in F&B establishments, and personal care services such as facial and nail services.

Smaller businesses, such as hawkers, who are unable to organise supervised self-swab tests on their own, have the option of getting swabbed at centralised Quick Test Centres.

Many businesses are opting for the Employer-Supervised Self-Swab (ESSS) regime, where employees will swab themselves under the supervision of a trained staff member.

Several businesses from #savefnbsg, an independent restaurant coalition of 500 establishments that came together during the circuit breaker last year, have faced issues such as securing slots for training sessions for supervised antigen rapid test (ART) self-swabs.

Staff will have to conduct these tests themselves, according to the Ministry of Health's guidelines and protocols.

Some others, who have already started in-house testing, have faced issues logging in to the portal where they have to upload the test results of the team.

"It's been confusing to get started with the testing regime for many of us," said Mr Loh Lik Peng, co-founder of #savefnbsg, and founder of hospitality and restaurant group Unlisted Collection.

"We are ready to implement it, but it's been extremely difficult getting onboarded... it's been a slew of issues like not having enough time slots (for training sessions), no confirmation on the appointments, cancellations of appointments and the list goes on," he said.

HMI Institute, the Ministry of Health-appointed vendor for the training sessions, told The Straits Times that on average, a thousand people are receiving training every day for the ESSS.

Training is conducted thrice daily from Monday to Saturday "to cater to as many different industries and train as many people as possible", said an HMI spokesman.

Slots are also updated daily and "there are ample slots for everyone", she added.

F&B establishments nominate at least two employees per outlet to attend the four-hour virtual training sessions.

The employees are then responsible for both the collection of the test kits, and managing the uploading of FET results to their outlet's dedicated Swab Registration System (SRS) online.

HMI said businesses that could not register the first time round are encouraged to apply again, or get in touch with it.

Some F&B players are also worried about the penalties if they are unable to meet the testing standards.

Ms Gan Guoyi, president of the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association (SCBA), which represents over 60 bars, said: "The biggest concern would be companies having to assume this new huge responsibility, with many wondering what the consequences will be on F&B businesses, if we should fall short on the testing regime."

For instance, the SRS system for ART testing reporting currently does not provide employers with a way to track when each employee is due for their next test, she said.

"Harsh punishments have been served to F&B businesses, with no opportunity for remedy, for unintentional infractions - especially in the recent weeks of reopening after the phase two heightened alert period - in the form of immediate 10-day closures and fines," she added.

"There are also concerns over how much time the testing would take to complete and coordinate as this additional burden eats into our work time and would come as an added cost for employers, having to dedicate certain areas and staff to conduct the testing."

The costs for the ART kits and training for employees will be borne by the Government for three months, but businesses will have to take on the expenses themselves from October.

Mr Loh said: "We believe in the importance to get through this period successfully together and that it's a small price to pay, literally, in exchange for an assurance that we don't go through another round of closure."

However, Ms Guo is also hoping for a concurrent shift towards a positive reopening for the F&B industry, with businesses suffering more than a year of limited venue capacities due to safe distancing measures and reduced operating hours.

"There should be more transparency on vaccination milestones, as well as indication on when this mandatory testing and current curbs on the F&B industry can be lifted based on these milestones. This would give us a sense of hope that things are moving in a positive direction," she said.

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