Debate for Ministerial Statement for Support Measures for Phase Two (Heightened Alert) and Phase Three (Heightened Alert) – Speech by Dennis Tan Lip Fong

Delivered in Parliament on 27 July 2021

Mr Deputy Speaker, on 14 May, the Government announced the commencement of Phase 2 Heightened Alert after the outbreak of the Changi Airport Cluster which had about 43 cases around 14 May.

Phase 3 Heightened Alert was in place by 14 June 2021 with 2-person in-room dining. 5-person dining was resumed on 12 July only to be short-lived by a change to 2 persons within one week from 19 July.

On 19 July itself, I was at a coffeeshop in Hougang for my dinner after house visits. Many residents present asked me whether it was true that there would be a lockdown of sorts in a few days’ time. This was the day when there were reportedly 163 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases, then a single day record. True enough, the next day the Government announced that Phase 2 Heightened Alert would be resumed from 22 July till 18 August with no in-room dining.

It has been over a year since the Circuit Breaker was ended for the GE to take place, yet it has been an unsettling period of ups and downs for businesses as the country coped with successive, growing Covid-19 clusters. Today I would like to touch on three aspects:

  1. Work From Home;
  2. More systematic and consistent supervision of Safe Management Measures in businesses and less abrupt reactive changes for businesses;
  3. Impact of dining restrictions on F&B outlets.

Work from Home

The Government has continued to insist on Work From Home (WFH) as the default for many of our businesses and offices with exceptions for small numbers to go back to office where necessary. This may compel many to work from home as a default and going to office on only certain limited days of the week. The argument goes that this will keep more people from taking public transport and congregate in larger numbers in the workplaces.

From the employees’ end, many have in fact got used to working from home. For those who are fortunately able to work effectively from their laptops or other devices away from the office, many even relish the flexibility of incorporating their childcare and other domestic responsibilities, which is not a bad thing. I have residents who are parents of toddlers (both fathers and mothers) who shared with me their concerns of less flexibility with child care once they cease WFH and have to go back to the office full-time.

On the other hand, the flexibility of Working From Home has its downsides: for example, as emails come in at all times of the day, many find it difficult to draw the line between work and time off from work and this takes a toll on rest, family time and even mental health; there has also been more neighbours’ disputes reported in the past year since Circuit Breaker, as more people stay at home.

From the employers’ end, while some businesses have adjusted to WFH and may not even go back to having an office with full daily staff attendance again, for many others, WFH is not ideal for their business operations, whether for getting more business, for internal management, employee supervision, or for managing staff morale.

Many businesses struggle with the uncertainty of how long this will last. Beyond a short renewal to see if things get clearer in the following year, how do businesses plan their rental renewal – keeping their space pending a return to the pre-Covid modus operandi or adopting permanently some degree of Work From Home like Mastercard or Prudential, and perhaps downsize office spaces?

What is the road map that the Government has as far as work from home is concerned – when do we stop working from home? What exact targets do we have to hit? Minister Gan Kim Yong in answering the honourable member Sylvia Lim’s question in Parliament not long ago, had shared some factors for Government’s consideration but as vaccination rates increase significantly these few months, can the Government consider setting clearer criteria or milestones so that businesses can also plan accordingly?

More systematic and consistent supervision of SMM in businesses and less abrupt reactive changes for businesses

In the early days of the Circuit Breaker, I remember that the criteria for law firms was not clear and some received indication that they could operate while others did not. Fortunately things got clearer subsequently. Indeed businesses strive on certainty and systematic and consistent supervision of safe management measures should be encouraged; sudden changes should be avoided. Let me raise a recent example of this.

The recent KTV cluster highlighted what was not known to many Singaporeans previously that some businesses in the nightlife industry had pivoted to F&B. As the KTV cluster unfolded, the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MMTF) announced a two-week suspension of operations from 16 July 2021 through 30 July 2021 for all nightlife establishments that had pivoted into F&B establishments which affected over 400 such establishments. It was announced that all the staff will be tested and their SMM protocols would be inspected to ensure these are properly implemented and before they are allowed to resume F&B operations.

Given the timing of the suspension, it looks like a direct reaction to the KTV cluster. However, I am concerned whether the abrupt 2-week suspension is fair to all affected nightlife businesses which pivoted to F&B outlets, bearing in mind that many of the 400 over establishments may not have the same kind of business or operating conditions as KTV bars with social hostesses and hence should not be regarded as having the risk levels as the intimate KTV bars.

In the first place, nightlife establishments were allowed to pivot to F&B outlets as a way for their businesses to survive and we heard this too in the house yesterday. In fact, MTI reported that only 18 out of 400 outlets received funding for kitchen installation and conversion. The rest had to dig into their pockets to do the conversion in face of indefinite closure of their businesses in the earlier days.

When they were allowed to operate as such, one would have expected that their premises were subjected to initial and subsequent regular inspections for compliance of safe management measures e.g. wearing of masks when not eating, safe distancing, kitchen and service hygiene and many others. If such inspections were carried out on a regular basis, wouldn’t the SFA or other Government agencies have been reasonably assured of the SMM compliance of these outlets or at the very least those establishments which do not have the intimate KTV operations or have similar characteristics; the abrupt closure of all premises would have been avoided.

Businesses need certainty and abrupt orders to cease business like this will cause sudden damaging losses to them. Moving ahead, I urge the Government to have more proactive and consistent supervision of SMM in businesses and avoid abrupt reactive changes.

Impact of dining restrictions and other measures on the F&B industry

What I have said above about businesses requiring certainties and avoiding abrupt disruptive orders also apply to F&B outlets. This is indeed one sector that has constantly been affected by the changing Covid phases from Circuit Breaker across the various Phase 2 and 3 sub-categories. From hawker centres, coffeeshops, food courts to cafes, restaurants and caterers.

Hawker centres and coffeeshops are not spared. Popular stalls do well during lockdowns. Drinks sales go down and soup based food suffer more. Economical rice stalls do better.

Mookata stalls turn to online sales to mitigate their losses. Zichar stalls suffer as there are no group sit down to multi-dish dinners. WFH also meant that F&B businesses near workplaces and away from residential areas, for example food centres like Amoy Street Food Centre or Lau Pa Sat, suffer a drop in business.

So when Phase 2 Heightened Alert was reinstated recently, I remember the many hawkers I spoke to over the past year and made a mental note of how I think each would be faring the next few weeks. I can’t help feeling a sense of dread for many of them.

Coffeeshop assistants or even local drinks promoters have been asked to do less work or even no work. Stall tenants have complained that they had to spend more on take away packaging, and yet crockery clearing fees have not been waived.

Many caterers have suffered badly because of the lack of events over the past year and more so during the Circuit Breaker and Phase 2 Heightened Alert periods. I shudder to think of the outlook for them until more and larger scale events with catering can take place.

Many may not realise that stalls in canteens in schools and institutes of higher learning are also affected. In June I met a resident during my house visits who runs a food stall in a primary school canteen. Her income went down during the Phase 2 Heightened Alert in May with more Home based learning. Another resident shared with me how the family business of running a few food stalls in tertiary institutions were also quite seriously affected by the Covid related closures and online classes. Have all such institutions waive or reduce rentals when students switched to HBL or online classes even before the Phase 2 Heightened Alert in May?

Since Circuit Breaker, life has not been easy for many in our F&B industry and changing dining restrictions and WFH add to their woes. I hope the Covid-19 recovery grant and other support schemes will go some way to reduce some of the losses but F&B operators, hawkers and staff would certainly look forward to end of dining-in restrictions when our vaccination rises in the coming weeks.

Clarification on manpower reimbursements for access control requirements imposed on Town Councils from 26 July 2021 onwards

Mr Deputy Speaker, before I close, I would like to seek clarification from the Government on a different issue. Due to the increase in cases detected at markets and hawker centres, the COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce has recently directed that all Town Councils are to implement access control with interim fencing and mandatory SafeEntry (SE) check-in at all markets and hawker centres by Monday 26 Jul 2021.

As additional personnel are required to assist with the access control work including personnel to man the access control, I would like to ask whether the Government will be reimbursing Town Councils for additional manpower expenses incurred in implementing access control and SafeEntry check in at markets and hawker centres.

Mr Deputy Speaker, notwithstanding the concerns I have raised here, I support the Ministerial Statement.