SINGAPORE - Staff resting and dining areas in all public bus interchanges have been segregated, with only one staff member allowed to sit at each table to dine, as part of a range of new measures to minimise Covid-19 spread at these places.
The move, announced on Thursday (Sept 2) by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), separates those who want to rest with their masks on from those who are eating, while also limiting the number of those without masks at any point in time.
For instance, at Tampines Concourse bus interchange, the restrictions mean only 10 staff will be able to dine in each time.
To more quickly pick up cases of infection, bus drivers and staff manning service counters in bus interchanges will also have to undergo routine testing at least once a week from Thursday.
Before this, transport operators conducted antigen rapid tests (ART) mostly on an ad hoc basis at bus interchanges on a portion of staff. All staff at a particular interchange are then required to take ARTs when a positive case surfaces. Those who subsequently test positive or whose results are inconclusive are sent for further polymerase chain reaction swabs.
The tightened measures that cover more than 11,000 front-line staff in the bus sector were put in place in the wake of growing Covid-19 clusters at eight public bus interchanges here - Toa Payoh, Boon Lay, Punggol, Jurong East, Bishan, Sengkang, Tampines and Clementi.
Tampines Concourse bus interchange is not a cluster.
As at Wednesday, 314 cases - including 284 bus drivers and service staff of bus interchanges - have been reported. The rest are their household contacts and members of the public.
As part of the move to tighten access to shared spaces in bus interchanges, National Transport Workers' Union-operated canteens, which usually sell food at subsidised rates, will no longer be open for the public to dine in, although people will still be able to buy food to go.
By next week, all bus interchanges will be installed with air purifiers. Physical separators will be set up at smoking areas so smokers can no longer interact with one another.
The frequency of the cleaning of high-touch points in staff areas will also be doubled to once every hour. Already, buses parked at interchanges have their windows wound down and doors open to air out the buses.
At a briefing on the clusters, the LTA said there is no major impact on bus operations for now.
But it added that there are contingency plans in place to lengthen the intervals between bus services - starting with routes with the lowest demand - if the clusters at bus interchanges continue to grow.
This could translate to longer waiting time for commuters, which have already been reported at Jurong East bus interchange. The Straits Times understands that one or two services have already been affected.
ST understands that the authorities have not definitively established links between the bus interchange clusters, mostly due to the similarity of virus profiles between bus drivers and the public.
It is unclear how the first bus staff member got the virus, but there are links between bus staff in shared areas.
About half of the bus service staff who have tested positive were found through proactive testing.
"The infected workers are mostly asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. No one has fallen seriously ill," the LTA said, attributing this to high vaccination rates.
Bus driver Goh Pek Hong, 65, is worried that the dining areas could be insufficient for the 90 workers at Tampines Concourse bus interchange, given the stricter measures.
However, she said she understood that the measures were necessary and that they made her feel safe.
"SBS Transit gives us face masks and lotion that we can use to wipe down the buses regularly. I do this as much as I can. I also try not to talk, and maintain a safe distance from others," she said. "I hope that this is just temporary. We have to help so that we can overcome the crisis together."
Mr Ng Lang, LTA's chief executive, said: "We have to strike a balance between welfare of workers and stepping up more measures... For instance, the rule on vaccinated drivers eating alone is more stringent than on the general public. It is not an easy decision, but it is necessary."
Labour MP Melvin Yong, who is executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union, said those who have been infected are recovering well.
The union will continue to stay in contact with them and those who have been quarantined, and is working closely with the LTA and transport operators to curb the spread of the virus, he added.