SINGAPORE: Cargo drivers from Malaysia delivering essential goods to Singapore on Friday (Jan 22) said they experienced delays at the land entry checkpoints, on the first day the Singapore government implemented mandatory COVID-19 tests.
Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) announced on Thursday that COVID-19 antigen rapid testing would be progressively rolled out for cargo drivers entering Singapore from Malaysia via the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints from 9am on Friday, and drivers would need to test negative before being allowed to enter Singapore.
The antigen rapid tests typically return results within half an hour.
Drivers interviewed by CNA said they experienced more than usual congestion at the checkpoints, resulting in delay to their delivery routes.
Among them was Mr K Sasikumar, who said he had to endure a 3-hour traffic jam at the Woodlands Causeway, en-route to delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
The 54-year-old arrived at the Malaysian side of the Causeway at around 1pm, but only cleared immigration at around 4pm. He said this was twice the usual time it took for him to travel across the border on a typical Friday afternoon.
"If I have to do this everyday, I will die," said Mr Sasikumar with a laugh. He added that he experienced pain in his lower back as a result of the longer than usual wait.
When asked to elaborate on the reasons for the delay, he said due to the COVID-19 tests, they had to sit and wait for the results for 30 minutes.
"There was a backlog of traffic all the way through the bridge," said the SRGS transport agency employee.
Mr Roslan Kamarulzaman, who drove overnight from Padang Besar in Kedah, said he reached Tuas Second Link at around 11am, but only cleared the checkpoint at 2.30pm. The process usually takes an hour.
"It was quite tiring, having to wait so long," said Mr Roslan, 48. "I read the news and heard that they would be doing the testing but did not expect it to affect us (so) much."
He described the swabbing process as "slightly uncomfortable but not very painful". He added: "But if I have to do this every time I enter Singapore, it can be irritating."
Another driver who drove overnight from Brinchang in Cameron Highlands and wanted to be known only as Mr Saravanan, said he arrived at Woodlands Causeway at 10am and cleared immigration around 12.30pm.
This was an hour longer than the average time to travel across the Causeway, he noted.
However, Mr Saravana said while most of his colleagues were tested, he was not selected. "The officer directed me to move forward (away from testing area) and I happily did," said the employee of Sun Yee Chong trading which delivers vegetables.
WHOLESALERS SAY DELAYS COULD IMPACT SUPPLY CHAIN
Vegetable wholesalers operating at Pasir Panjang, who deal directly with the truck drivers from Malaysia, told CNA that the congestion at the checkpoints could impact the quality of certain produce and the delivery schedules to retailers.
Mr Chua Wen Long, a wholesaler with Golden Horse Enterprise, said: "I am in contact with our drivers at the Causeway and the waiting time to clear (the rapid test) is roughly 3 hours for each driver."
"This is not good because the delay will impact our supply chain and deliveries to our retailers. The deliveries for subsequent days will also be impacted because the testing will be done (from Friday onwards)," he added.
He predicts that the congestion could be worse for subsequent days when there is more cargo traffic, typically during early mornings. Truck drivers who arrived at the checkpoints early Friday morning were not subject to the new requirement.
Mr Kelvin Chye, the managing director for major distributor Thygrace Marketing, told CNA that his company will monitor the situation closely as it is concerned over the freshness of the products delivered, particularly perishables like green leafy vegetables.
"I heard (from drivers) that only selected drivers will be tested, so the delays may not be as bad as I feared," said Mr Chye.
"My worry is for the perishable vegetables that need to be stored in cooler temperatures to remain fresh, like chye sim, red coral lettuce and romaine lettuce. They might not survive (being in warmer temperatures) during heavy traffic jams," he added.
However, Dairy Farm Group, which runs Giant and Cold Storage supermarkets in Singapore, told CNA that it has so far not experienced any impact on the delivery of goods from Malaysia.
TESTING OPERATIONS CONDUCTED "RELATIVELY SMOOTHLY": COVID-19 TASK FORCE
When asked to comment on delays at the land checkpoints during the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force press conference on Friday evening, Ministry of Health's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said various government agencies have been working closely to ensure that testing operations are done with "the minimum of disruption".
"So far today, the observations have been that the operations have been conducted relatively smoothly. More than 500 truck drivers have been tested, and we are pleased to inform that so far, the tests for these drivers have been negative," said Assoc Prof Mak.
"We will continue to work through our processes to make sure that we improve on them so as to make sure that this is not as disruptive to both the businesses and drivers, in that the operations can continue without too much delay at the checkpoints," he added.
In its statement on Thursday, MTI acknowledged the importance of ensuring the smooth movement of essential goods between both countries.
The statement said: "We recognise the importance of ensuring the smooth passage of goods between Singapore and Malaysia and value the important role of the cargo drivers and accompanying personnel.
"We will ensure smooth operations at the checkpoints to minimise disruptions to deliveries and supply chains. Businesses expecting deliveries are encouraged to maintain close communication with their logistic providers and cater for possible delays."
MTI also highlighted that businesses, cargo drivers and accompanying personnel must continue to abide by safe management measures, including contactless delivery, wearing of masks, and safe distancing.
Cargo drivers told CNA that they had to wear wristbands to identify themselves and were issued with a global positioning system (GPS) device in their vehicles. They were told not to mingle with wholesalers or retailers at the distribution centres.
However, when CNA visited Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre on Friday, wholesalers and truck drivers were seen shaking hands and working in close proximity.
Some drivers and wholesalers also had their masks pulled down while they were unloading goods. Drivers who travelled from Malaysia were also seen not wearing any wristbands.
DRIVERS ENCOURAGED TO STAY INSIDE TRUCK AT WHOLESALE CENTRE: SFA
In respond to queries from CNA, the Singapore Food Agency said safety protocols are in place at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre for tenants, workers and truck drivers. These protocols include wearing masks, maintaining a safe distance of 1m between one another and temperature taking.
"As an added measure to reduce mingling, only wholesale, distribution and food trade related personnel are currently allowed to enter Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre," SFA said.
Additionally, SFA said truck drivers at the wholesale centre are advised to stay inside their trucks and discouraged from moving around.
"Once inside Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, drivers are instructed to offload their goods and move to designated parking lots demarcated by yellow lines to minimise interaction with others," SFA said.
"Drivers are also required to wear wristbands for ease of identification and to only use the dedicated toilets available to ensure they do not mingle with each other," the statement added.
SFA stated that safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers have been deployed at the wholesale centre to remind all personnel to adhere to the safety protocols.
It added that this includes ensuring that drivers do not cross the yellow demarcated lines, which will also be re-painted regularly to ensure they are visible.
"COVID-19 remains a grave threat and we must not be complacent. We urge everyone to be socially responsible and to continue to adhere to safe management measures," SFA said.