Time to allow foreign workers out of dorms? Health experts weigh in

Apart from going to work or to run essential errands, workers are still largely restricted to their dorms.
Apart from going to work or to run essential errands, workers are still largely restricted to their dorms.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Nearly three weeks have passed since a Covid-19 case was last reported in foreign worker dormitories, and some health experts now approve of easing the strict movement restrictions on them.

The residents have remained subject to more stringent movement curbs here, following the rapid and massive outbreak of the virus in dorms that began in end March.

Apart from going to work or to run essential errands, workers are still largely restricted to their dorms, but can visit specified recreation centres on their rest days.

However, several health experts The Straits Times spoke to said that the Covid-19 situation in dorms has abated, and the authorities can consider lifting such restrictions, although the experts differed on when this can be done.

Infectious diseases specialist Leong Hoe Nam said the authorities can now consider allowing the workers more freedom to move in the community, given that Singapore crossed the 14-day mark without infections in dorms last Wednesday. The last infection in dorms was reported on Nov 10.

There are already many safeguards in place to prevent another outbreak in dormitories, such as routine screening of workers, mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing rules, said Dr Leong.

While it would take 28 days, or two incubation cycles of the virus, to fully ensure that dormitories are free of Covid-19, Dr Leong said this timeline can be shortened because of the extensive measures in place.

Even if an infected person goes out into the community, the disease should not spread if everyone abides by the mask-wearing measure and social distancing rules, he said. "With this argument in place, it makes sense for foreign workers to have some normality."

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said workers should be allowed back into the community when Singapore moves on to its next phase of reopening, as that would mean the whole community is ready for rapid contact tracing and testing.

The authorities have said that Singapore will enter phase 3 of its reopening only when about 70 per cent of the population participates in TraceTogether, a technology-enabled contact tracing programme.

"With the widespread use of TraceTogether, it is much more possible to halt an outbreak quickly through aggressive contact tracing, testing and quarantining," said Prof Teo.

Dr Ling Li Min, an infectious diseases physician, urged caution, noting that there are "pockets of asymptomatic infections lurking around". This is evident by new cases that emerged after 15 days of no infections in the community, she said. Three such cases have been reported since last Thursday (Nov 26).

She added that it would be expected that the authorities take a "steady and gradual approach" in relaxing the strict measures.


A migrant worker shows the contact tracing device that he wears at all times. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

In response to queries from ST, the Manpower Ministry said it will further ease the restrictions on dorm residents if infection rates are "sustained at low levels".

It has also worked with community groups to arrange for organised excursions for residents.

Meanwhile, workers said they hope the rules can be relaxed soon.

Mr Saddam Mohammad, 27, a Bangladeshi carpenter who stays in a purpose-built dormitory, said his life revolves around work.

He said he reports to work almost every day, and he returns to his dormitory straight after. He hopes to be able to venture out again "because I'm very bored in the dorm".

But employers ST spoke to said that not all their workers seem keen on heading out as most are focused on making up for their income loss with overtime work.

An owner of a construction company, who gave his name only as Mr Salman, 49, said his foreign workers have been working overtime daily. "While our work has been delayed by six months, the deadlines set by our clients remain the same."