COVID-19: Decision not to take tighter measures in dorms earlier not about cost – Josephine Teo

SINGAPORE — Asked why stricter measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore’s foreign worker dormitories were not taken earlier, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Tuesday (21 April) denied that cost was the main consideration in doing so.

“It is not that at all. It is that to break the transmission, you really need a whole host of other things to happen: work stoppages, closing shopping areas, preventing people from socialising with one another,” said Teo who was addressing a live virtual press conference by the multi-ministry taskforce on the coronavirus outbreak.

“We're now asking the workers not to go to work. So from the workers’ standpoint, this is a question of livelihood. Now, to say that we could have done this much earlier, I think, really does not, you know, reflect an understanding of the workers’ own concern. It would not have been so easy to tell the workers please don't go to work because we want to protect you. You have to do this in the context of a circuit breaker, where all work mostly have come to a stop.”

The 51-year-old reiterated that at the beginning of January, dormitory operators had been asked to raise hygiene standards, while MOM produced “lots and lots of materials” on COVID-19 to encourage the workers to protect themselves.

Teo was responding to a question on what had gone wrong in the last few weeks, as the number of cases in the country has surged from about 1,500 to more than 9,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. The taskforce was also asked if workers were not moved out of their dormitories earlier due to the high cost of such an undertaking.

Some 6,000 migrant workers across dozens of dormitories have tested positive for the coronavirus. Authorities have responded by, among others, moving some 10,000 workers in essential services out of the dormitories and into alternative accommodation.

Medical teams have also been deployed to dormitories with infection clusters to check on workers’ health, with as many as 3,000 workers tested each day. Strict social distancing measures have been implemented in the dormitories, with workers living on different floors forbidden from interacting with each other.

However, Teo did not specifically explain why such measures were not taken earlier.

Surge in numbers due to aggressive testing: Wong

On Tuesday, the taskforce also announced, among others, that workers in dormitories with infection clusters will stop going to work

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the taskforce, also responded to the question on why tighter measures were not taken earlier. “I think it's important to understand the rise in numbers, particularly coming up from the migrant worker dormitories are not new cases of infections.”

Wong said that the surge in numbers was down to the “aggressive testing regime” being carried out in the dormitories, with even healthy workers being tested. “What this suggests is that, in fact, the infections have been occurring for some time, starting very early. And it has been going on and circulating, otherwise you will not have been able to pick up such high numbers.”

The press conference was held on the same day that Prime Minister Lee Hsien announced the extension of so-called circuit breaker measures for an additional four weeks, till 1 June.

Earlier Tuesday, Singapore confirmed 1,111 new cases of the COVID-19 virus, bringing the total to 9,125 – the highest recorded in South-East Asia. A majority of the new cases are linked to foreign workers living in dormitories, while 20 are Singaporeans and permanent residents.

At least 35 clusters linked to foreign worker dormitories have been identified thus far, including the largest cluster so far linked to S11 Dormitory@Punggol, as well as Sungei Tengah Lodge. Both are among the 18 dorms that have been gazetted as isolation areas.

Some 300,000 workers live in dorms in Singapore.

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