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VIRUS OUTBREAK

Covid-19: Stricter measures like ban on events with over 250 people; new contact tracing app

Safe distancing measures are to reduce risk of further local transmissions

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A new government app will also help contact tracers inform users swiftly if they have been in close contact with a Covid-19 case - even if the case is a stranger.

Singapore

STRICTER "safe distancing measures" are being introduced for events, public venues such as food and beverage outlets, and workplaces, to reduce the risk of further local transmissions of Covid-19, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Friday.

A new government app will also help contact tracers inform users swiftly if they have been in close contact with a Covid-19 case - even if the case is a stranger.

As at 12 noon on Friday, 40 new Covid-19 cases were reported, taking Singapore's total to 385. Of the new cases, 30 were imported, including 22 returning citizens or permanent residents, and seven on long-term passes.

From Saturday till June 30, all events and gatherings with 250 or more participants must be suspended - including MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) events, religious gatherings, and private events such as weddings.

Smaller events and gatherings must have measures to ensure separation of at least a metre, including spaced seating at events. Events must also comply with existing guidelines such as having temperature and health screening measures, and turning away those who are unwell.

The government is working with venue operators to ensure that this is implemented over the coming days, with enforcement via venue licensing conditions.

Alongside measures to reduce imported cases and contact tracing, safe distancing is a key line of defence, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce on Covid-19. "We have to do this more rigorously than what we are doing today, in order to protect ourselves."

"It cannot just be business as usual," he added, saying that the idea is to have "fewer people out and about" and a reduction in gatherings.

Public venues must ensure separation of at least a metre between patrons. For instance, queues should be kept fast moving, and operators are encouraged to mark out queues with spacing of at least a metre.

Food and beverage outlets should keep a distance of at least one metre between tables and between seats. Patrons who wish to be seated together may still do so, but there should be a safe distance between different groups. This is mandatory and can be enforced via licensing conditions, said Mr Wong.

"We recognise that all this will have significant costs for our F&B operators," he said, but added that this is a necessary precaution.

Entertainment venues and attractions - including cinemas, theatres, theme parks, casinos, museums, and galleries - should adopt measures to ensure separation, such as reducing operating capacity, and adopting chequerboard or alternate seating.

Employers are strongly advised to have measures to reduce close physical interactions among workers. They should facilitate telecommuting, and use teleconferencing in place of physical meetings where possible.

Where telecommuting is not possible, they should take precautions such as staggered working hours - with at least three hour-long blocks, and no more than half of employees reporting to work in any one block - and spacing between work stations. Where possible, reporting and ending times for work should not coincide with peak-hour travel.

Non-critical work events should be deferred, while critical events must be limited to no more than 250 participants, with separation.

An earlier suspension of senior-centric activities held by public institutions will be extended for 14 days, through April 7. In addition, all organisers of activities involving physical interaction among seniors - including private organisers - should suspend these from March 22 to April 7.

Singapore has not yet seen any evidence of widespread community transmission - so it is important to take these distancing measures early, proactively, said Mr Wong.

For community-driven contact-tracing, a government mobile app has been released on Friday, to complement the work of MOH contact tracers. Individuals can choose to download the app, TraceTogether, and turn on Bluetooth to detect other app users nearby.

The encrypted Bluetooth records are stored remotely on each user's own phone. If a user is involved in contact tracing, he can then consent to send the app data to the MOH. Only then will the government have access to the logs.

Using the logs, contact tracers can inform app users who were close contacts, roughly defined as being within two metres for 30 minutes. No notifications are sent via the app itself. "It means that poor memory will no longer slow down the process of contact tracing," said taskforce member Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport and for Communications and Information.

No location data is collected at any time, and the only personal data needed is a mobile number.

Under the Infectious Diseases Act, action can be taken against individuals who do not cooperate with contact tracing. Nonetheless, use of the app is voluntary, and users can stop using it at any time.

The app was developed by Government Technology Agency in collaboration with the MOH. Information on privacy safeguards can be found at http://go.gov.sg/tracetogether-privacy

Separately, the Manpower Ministry is encouraging firms to impose a leave of absence (LOA) for employees who returned to Singapore from March 14 to March 20 and have not been issued with stay-home notices.

Employers and the self-employed may claim S$100 in daily support per affected worker, under the LOA Support Programme.

The exceptions are if work was done remotely during this time; the employee had to use his own paid leave entitlements for the LOA; or the employee's travel happened after certain dates, when respective advisories against travel were already in place.

READ MORE: More major events in Singapore to be delayed as social distancing kicks in