Update on Singapore’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Vadim Krasovskiy Business News, Living in Singapore

Coronavirus in Singapore

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus — Covid-19 — has raised alarm bells all over the world. The first case involving the previously unknown, pneumonia-like Covid-19 virus was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan on December 31, 2019. Only a week later, Chinese authorities confirmed that it was a new (hence, a novel) virus. The disease causes symptoms similar to the ordinary cold, but it quickly affects the lungs and other organs. As of May 5, the disease has infected more than 3 million people in the world, and more than 255, 000 victims have died.

In Singapore, the first case of coronavirus infection was recorded on January 23. It was reported by the Ministry of Health of Singapore (MOH). According to the ministry, the patient was a 66-year-old resident of Wuhan who came to Singapore with his family on January 20. The man had a fever and a cough; he was hospitalized on January 22. As of now, he is discharged.

Latest situation

As of May 5 , Singapore has recorded a total of 19, 410 cases — making Singapore the country with the 26th highest number of confirmed cases in the world with USA, Spain, Italy, UK, France, Germany, and Russia leading this list. The first few patients in Singapore were tourists from Wuhan. But on Feb 3, local transmissions were identified; and by Feb 8, those infections exceeded patients who were infected abroad. As of May 5, 1, 519 patients have been discharged from the hospital after their recovery. However, about 20 patients are still in critical condition. Because of its robust and fast response, Singapore has recorded only 18 deaths.

Policies and measures to contain the virus

Due to the fast spread of coronavirus, the MOH has just raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from yellow to orange. The decision was taken after several cases of coronavirus infection in Singapore were confirmed to have no connection to previous cases or to travel to mainland China.

Following this, the ministry implemented a number of measures to curb the rise during the first wave of the pandemic that were made effective immediately.

Temperature-taking at workplaces 

DORSCON orange obliges employers to conduct daily health checks at offices. All companies must require their employees to pass a twice-daily body temperature check. Employers must also monitor whether workers have developed respiratory symptoms such as a cough and runny nose. Anyone with a fever or who is unwell is required to leave the office immediately and visit a doctor.

Updating business continuity plans 

All companies are advised to update their business continuity plans and to prepare for widespread community transmission. The amended documents may include measures such as allowing staff to telecommute or dividing the workforce into segregated teams.

Large-scale events

Event organisers are asked to cancel or postpone non-essential large public events. For those who decide to proceed, MOH advises a number of precautions to limit risks, such as taking participants’ temperature and monitoring for any respiratory symptoms. Participants should be encouraged to provide a travel declaration and to skip the event if they have recent travel history to mainland China.

Entry points controls at key locations

Additional measures are required at hospitals, schools, and social services facilities, including: 

  • Temperature-taking at entry points, as well as closer controls;
  • Caring for patients with pneumonia separately from others;
  • Schools are to suspend inter-school and external activities and should hold classes in smaller groups;
  • Social services facilities are required to limit the number of visitors.

Personal hygiene and alternative greetings 

Authorities are also asking individuals to play their part, noting that the most effective way to prevent transmission remains good personal hygiene and regular hand-washing. Additionally, MOH has advised against shaking hands. People who are unwell are advised to stay at home and wear a mask. Staff who come across customers who are unwell should immediately request them to leave and visit a doctor.

Additional measures to contain a second wave of the pandemic

Initially Singapore managed to avoid activating sweeping lockdowns. But as new confirmed infections jumped to more than 1,000, on April 3 authorities announced the introduction of stronger measures to curb the rise of a second wave of the pandemic. The restrictions were originally in effect from April 7 to May 4, and have been extended until June 1. However certain businesses are permitted to reopen from May 5, as described in the section below.

Closure of schools

Schools and institutes of higher learning must shift to full home-based online education, while pre-school and student care centres are to suspend services. Private education institutions should also move to home-based learning, or suspend classes if this is not possible.

Parents working in essential services who are unable to secure alternative care arrangements are allowed to approach their children’s pre-schools and primary schools for help.

Most workplaces are closed

Most physical workplace premises must also shut down. Those providing essential services, such as government services, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport, and key banking services, will be exempted. Others that are part of selected economic sectors critical to local and global supply chains will also be allowed to stay open.

All companies are encouraged to ask their employees to work remotely, if it is possible. If a business can’t justify why its employees are not working remotely, it will face a fine or a stop-work order. Those who breach this protocol can be fined up to SGD 10,000 or jailed for up to six months.

Eateries restrictions

All restaurants, hawker centres, coffee shops, food courts, and other food and beverage outlets remain open only for takeaway or delivery.

There will be no dine-in service, and nobody should consume any food or drinks onsite while waiting for takeaway food.

Closure of recreation and worship places 

All attractions, theme parks, museums, and casinos must be closed. Sports and recreation facilities, such as public swimming pools, country clubs, gyms, and fitness studios, will also be shut. Recreational facilities in hotels will no longer operate. Places of worship will also be closed.

Staying at home 

People are strongly advised to stay at home and avoid going out unnecessarily, except to buy daily necessities, to provide essential services, or for urgent medical needs. Social contact should be confined to immediate family members living in the same household during this period. The government has laid down strict measures for social gatherings, banning all gatherings of more than 10 people. Those who need to exercise should do so on their own, and only in their immediate neighbourhood in open, uncrowded places.

Face masks regime

The state will also hand out face masks to all households now, in a turnaround from its previous stance that only ill people needed to wear protective equipment. The reusable masks will be distributed at collection points at designated community clubs and centres and residents’ committee centres. 

Testing

Testing is another important element of the government’s strategy. The country tests around 2,000 people a day. Full Contract Tracing is performed for those who test positive to identify others who they may have infected.  If the authorities identify a cluster, they may shut down the affected areas.

Companies’ general meetings may be held online, Annual Return deadlines postponed

In light of the Covid-19 situation where companies may have difficulties holding their Annual General Meetings (AGMs) and filing Annual Returns with Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), ACRA will grant a 60-day extension of time for all listed and non-listed companies whose AGMs are due during the period 16 April 2020 to 31 July 2020, and for AR filing due during the period 1 May 2020 to 31 August 2020. There is no need for these companies to apply for the extension of time. 

However, for those businesses that choose to proceed with meetings on the original date, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, and Singapore Exchange Regulation have issued updated guidelines for conducting general meetings. 

The proposed provisions allow for alternative arrangements to be made for when personal attendance at a meeting is provided for in the law or in the internal documents. Examples of such meetings include those under the Companies Act and company constitutions (for example, annual general meetings), meetings held under trust deeds, creditors’ meetings, and meetings held under a trade union’s rules.

Thus, meetings held before April 30 will involve the following changes in procedure:

  • Meetings may be held by live webcast.
  • Companies should invite shareholders to submit questions in advance, and then publicly address substantial ones via their website, webcast, and on SGXNet.
  • Any quorum requirements will be satisfied through the attendance of the minimum number of shareholders specified in the issuer’s constitution, or up to the number of individuals permitted under the regulations, whichever is lower.
  • Virtual information sessions before meetings start are also encouraged, to let shareholders engage with management.
  • With regard to proxy voting, shareholders must appoint the chairperson of the general meeting to act as proxy and direct the vote at the general meeting. 
  • Management must also provide at least 21 days’ notice to shareholders of general meetings, to allow them to consider matters, pose questions, and vote via proxy.
  • Minutes from meetings must be published on the company website.

Under the proposed provisions, meetings held in accordance with alternative arrangements will be deemed to have satisfied the relevant legal requirements.

Temporary closure of ACRA service counters

In view of the elevated safe distancing measures, ACRA closed its service counters on April 20 until further notice. All of ACRA’s services remain available online, and it encourages customers to use its enhanced online services at BizFile platform. As an additional simplifying measure, filers will not have to input detailed bio-data for some position holders as ACRA can directly obtain this information from other government agencies. Additionally, the authority’s helpdesk is still operational and can be accessed by phone from 9am to 6pm, every Monday to Friday. Alternatively, ACRA accepts enquiries via its website.

Easing certain COVID-19 curbs

On May 2, Singapore’s Health Ministry confirmed 447 new coronavirus infections, the smallest daily rise in two weeks. It was the ninth day in a row on which new daily infections fell below 1,000. Most of the new cases were among migrant workers.

Thus, on May 5 the Singapore Government is taking the first tentative steps towards reopening the economy and beginning to ease the COVID-19 restrictions. However, authorities emphasize that the situation remains fluid and plans may need to be adjusted further, depending on how the situation unfolds in the coming weeks.

Here is the broad timeline that the Health Ministry has laid out for the easing of the measures:

May 5:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) needle acupuncture will be allowed but only for pain management, if assessed by the TCM practitioner to be essential. 
  • TCM halls with registered TCM practitioners will also be allowed to sell retail products. 
  • Residents living in strata-titled residential buildings (like apartments and condominiums) may exercise within the common areas of these private residential developments, such as footpaths, but must continue to practise safe-distancing measures.
  • Facilities such as playgrounds, club houses, barbecue pits, gyms and swimming pools will have to remain closed, but essential activities such as walking and running will be allowed on the grounds of these estates. People will have to wear masks while walking on the grounds and they cannot be out in groups. 

May 12:

  • Manufacturing and onsite preparation of all food will be allowed to resume.
  • Retail outlets selling food, including cakes and confectionery, packaged snacks and desserts, will be allowed to reopen, but for takeaway and delivery only.
  • Home-based food businesses may operate, but only for delivery or collection. 
  • Retail laundry services, barbers, and hairdressers (for basic haircut services) and retail of pet supplies will also be allowed to resume.

May 19:

  • Schools will bring back students from graduating cohorts in small groups for face-to-face consultations and lessons. 
  • Institutes of higher learning, especially the Institute of Technical Education, will also bring back small groups of students on campus for critical consultations, projects or practicums.

The full list of activities that will be allowed to operate, and relevant further information, will be updated here.

Policies and measures to assist businesses

The Singapore Government is studying the influence of the Wuhan virus on the country’s economy and developing a strategy for how best to support business during the crisis. The hospitality, tourism, transport, retail, and food and beverage sectors are likely to be hit hardest by the outbreak. There are plans to provide special budget items in 2020 for assisting these businesses. 

State authorities have announced measures to help sectors most affected by the virus outbreak. Those measures so far include the following:

Waiving license fees for hotels, travel agents and tourist guides

The tourism sector is one of the hardest hit by the virus, due to a decline in visitor arrivals, especially from China. Chinese tourists usually account for around 20% of Singapore’s international visitor arrivals (about 3.6 million visitors in 2019).

The Hotels Licensing Board has announced it will waive licence fees for hotels for the rest of the year. Hotel operators typically have to pay between $300 and $500 to renew their license every year, depending on the number of rooms each hotel has.

Similarly, travel agents and tourist guides whose licences are due for renewal in 2020 will not have to pay to renew their license.

Covering partial cleaning costs for hotels that accommodated virus victims

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has launched a project to cover up to 50% of third-party professional cleaning fees for hotels. This package is capped at $20,000 per establishment that hosted confirmed cases, and up to $10,000 per hotel with suspected cases. This financial aid will be backdated to January 23, when the first case of Wuhan virus was detected in Singapore. Applications will be open until April 30, after that STB will assess the situation to see if further support is required.

Relief for taxi and private-hire drivers

Taxi and private-hire drivers will receive a $77 million package to support them for losses caused by the virus. This assistance is co-funded, with the Government contributing a share of $45 million and taxi and private-hire companies paying for the rest. There is also an additional $2.7 million fund set up by the Government and National Trades Union Congress.

Through this plan, about 40,000 drivers will be able to receive a $20 relief payment each day for three months from February 14. Active private-hire drivers who have completed at least 200 rides a month from October to December 2019 will also be entitled to the relief.

In addition, a total of 300,000 surgical masks will be given out to taxi and private-hire drivers, and temperature-taking stations will be set up to better protect them from the virus.

Reduced borrowing rates for SMEs

Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Enterprise Singapore (ESG) have announced that eligible banks can borrow at just 0.1 per cent per annum for a two-year duration, in a move designed to support Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) lending.

The initiative will help lower the cost of loans under the Temporary Bridging Loan Programme and the Enhanced Enterprise Financing Scheme – SME Working Capital Loan. The first scheme is aimed at helping local companies manage their immediate cash flow needs. Companies that require additional working capital — i.e. beyond the limits supported by this programme — can apply for the Enhanced Enterprise Financing Scheme – SME Working Capital Loan. 

The lower borrowing cost will apply to loans obtained between April 8, 2020 and March 31, 2021.

For example, OCBC Bank has announced that it could lower its interest rates on government-assisted loans with the facility to between 2 per cent and 3 per cent, down from 6 per cent or more at the beginning of the year.

Financial support for maritime companies and individuals

On April 29, 2020, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) announced that it would provide financial support to the maritime industry in the wake of the global COVID-19 outbreak under the MaritimeSG Together Package that took effect on May 1, 2020. 

The MaritimeSG Together Package, amounting to about S $27 million, will provide:

  • Financial support to companies;  
  • Financial support to individuals for training; and 
  • Financial and employment support to Singaporean seafarers. 

To help vessel owners and operators of cargo vessels, MPA will provide a 30% port dues concession for cargo vessels from May 1 to December 31, 2020. MPA will also grant a 30% port dues concession for all non-passenger-carrying harbour craft in the Port of Singapore over the same period.

Furthermore, MPA will grant a 35% rebate to regional ferry operators to offset their monthly rental fees for overnight berthing of vessels, for three months starting March 2020. With effect from May 1, 2020, MPA has increased this support to 50% until December 31, 2020.   

Under a new Maritime Cluster Fund–Internship Reimbursement Scheme, the authorities will help maritime companies provide students who are Singaporeans or Singapore permanent residents with internship opportunities. MPA will co-fund 50% of the internship allowance paid by maritime companies, capped at S $500 per month per intern, for up to a maximum period of six months.   

MPA will also increase its co-funding support under selected Maritime Cluster Fund schemes to up to 90%. These measures seek to encourage skills improvement and further support maritime companies in their digital transformation efforts during this period. 

To support Singaporean seafarers, MPA and the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union will roll out the Seafarers Relief Package for eligible seafarers who are unable to secure shipboard employment between May 1 and July 31, 2020. They can apply to receive up to S $800 per month in financial assistance.

Government grants to support businesses and individuals

Singapore’s government has allocated a S$48 billion budget for a number of grants to support Singaporeans and businesses in the period of global pandemic. These projects are as follows:

Grants to Support Businesses

  • Enhanced Property Tax Rebate for 2020. The rebate will be granted to owners of qualifying commercial properties (hotels, serviced apartments, tourist attractions, shops, and restaurants), to help them with the cost pressure during this period. With this enhancement, owners will now be granted rebates of up to 100% of their property tax payable from 1 January to 31 December 2020.
  • Enhanced Rental Waivers. Stall owners at hawker centres and markets will be eligible for enhanced rental waivers. The waivers currently are up to 3 months.
  • Cash Flow Support. During the pandemic period, the government will support those who are facing cash flow challenges, with the expanded Temporary Bridging Loan Programme, Enterprise Financing Scheme, Loan Insurance Scheme etc.
  • Resilience Building. The SG Together Enhancing Enterprise Resilience (STEER) programme will support funds set up by the trade associations and chambers (TACs) or industry groupings, aiming to help businesses who have suffered during this period. Under the programme, Enterprise Singapore will match S$1 for every S$2 raised by such initiatives, up to S$1 million per fund. 

Grants to support workers and protect livelihoods

  • Solidarity payment — for individuals. To help households cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, all Singaporeans aged 21 and older will now receive a one-off payout of $600.
  • Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) — for companies. The government will pay 75% of the first S$4,600 of monthly wages for every local worker in employment. Employers will get their first payout in April 2020.
  • Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) — for companies. The WCS has now added a further S$500 million for employees’ wage increases, on top of the $600 million that was disbursed in March 2020. This scheme supports businesses and encourages employers to share productivity gains with workers by co-funding wage increases.
  • Covid-19 Support Grant — for individuals. The programme has been introduced to support those who have lost their jobs due to the virus outbreak. This grant will help them to find a new job or enrol themselves for training. Successful applicants will receive a cash grant of S$800 for 3 months.
  • Temporary Relief Fund — for individuals. This is similar to the Covid-19 Support Grant. The Temporary Relief Fund focuses on providing immediate assistance. Singapore Citizens or PRs aged 16 years and above (who are presently unemployed due to retrenchment or contract termination due to the virus) will be able to get one-off assistance of S$500 to help them with their basic day-to-day expenses.
  • Allowance for Malasians. Companies affected by Malaysia’s travel restrictions amid the virus outbreak will receive Singapore Government’s allowance of SGD 50 per Malaisian worker per night to cover the extra costs incurred. This is to encourage workers to stay in Singapore.  

Grants to support Self-Employed Persons (SEPs)

  • SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). The Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme will provide direct cash assistance to the self-employed. Those having started work as a SEP on or before 25 March 2020 and not earning income as an employee will receive S$1000 per month for 9 months.
  • SEP Training Support Scheme. The Self-Employed Persons Training Support Scheme will provide support for such persons to make use of the pandemic period to improve their skills through training. Up to 90% of course fees will be subsidised. Also, from 1 May 2020, a training allowance of S$10 per hour will be provided. 
  • Point-to-Point Support Package. This grant will help taxi and PHC (private-hire car) drivers who have been affected by the virus. Eligible full-time taxi and PHC drivers can now receive up to S$300 per vehicle per month till the end of September.  
  • Enhanced Workfare Special Payment. This grant will provide a cash payout of S$3,000 for Singaporeans 35 and older (as well as disabled persons of all ages) earning an average gross monthly income of S$2,300 or less per month. This will be paid in 2 instalments of S$1,500 each in July and October 2020. 

Grants to Support Families

  • Enhanced Care & Support Package. The scheme has been designed to help both families and individuals. Each eligible citizen will receive S$300, $600 or $900 (depending on their income). Parents with at least one Singaporean child aged 20 or below in 2020 will receive an additional S$300 in cash.

Singapore is one of the leaders in handling the coronavirus

As of now, Singapore is recognised as a country with one of the most effective approaches to combating COVID-19. When the virus first emerged, the country took some of the most aggressive measures anywhere to contain its spread, earning praise from the World Health Organization.

Such a result is being achieved with a combination of actions Singapore has taken: it has a top-notch health system and has put in place unprecedented tracing and containment measures. Also, the population largely accepts the government’s expansive orders. 

Raising the DORSCON level from yellow to orange included imposing restrictions on anyone with recent travel history to the affected countries (Singapore was one of the first countries to do so), creating a strict hospital and home quarantine regimen for potentially infected patients, and tracing anyone those patients may have been in contact with.

One of the most innovative measures is a mobile web-based application through which patients placed under home quarantine can report their location to the authorities. Singapore has an advanced contact tracing system, using a new serological test that can establish links between infected people, to understand the chain of transmission and thereby try to break it. 

In addition, the country has had extensive practice in dealing virus containment during the 2003 SARS outbreak in which 33 people died, and the 2010 swine flu, with more than 400,000 cases of infection. Thanks to this experience, precautions were already in place: ready-made government quarantine facilities and a national center for managing infectious diseases. The Ministry of Health has tested more than 1,300 people and imposed two-week quarantines on about 3,000 people who had close contact with infected patients. 

Authorities in Singapore will continue to be strict about border control for travelers and are paying closer attention to those who have a history of recent travel to contaminated places.

All this shows the world that the virus is not uncontrollable. Singapore remains today open for international business, even providing special assistance to the sectors affected.

Our recommendations to clients

We advise our clients in Singapore or who are planning to visit the country to follow the personal hygiene measures recommended by the World Health Organization:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or if your hands are not visibly dirty, use an alcohol-based hand rub;
  • Practice respiratory hygiene. When coughing or sneezing, cover mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue;
  • Maintain social distancing — at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and other people, particularly those who are coughing, sneezing and have a fever;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth — you can transfer the virus from the surface to yourself;
  • If you have fever, cough or difficulty breathing, seek medical care early.

For business owners and employers, it seems reasonable to adhere to recommendations given by the Singapore government within the DORSCON programme, especially if you have offices in countries with registered cases of coronavirus:

  • You are advised to update your business continuity plan and allow employees to telecommute or at least divide the workforce into segregated teams;
  • In case telecommuting is not possible, you must conduct daily health checks at offices, require your employees to pass regular temperature-taking at least twice daily. Designate a staff member to monitor whether workers and visitors have respiratory symptoms such as a cough or runny nose. Anyone with a fever or who is unwell should leave the office immediately and visit a doctor;
  • Your company is encouraged to cancel or postpone crowded events;
  • Business trips to contaminated countries and personal communication with people recently arrived from such territories are best cancelled for now.

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