SINGAPORE: It is common for Grab driver Roy Lee to receive “curious looks” from other motorists when he pulls up next to them at the traffic lights.
He is, after all, decked out in personal protective equipment (PPE), comprising a mask, goggles, yellow gown and gloves.
“I’d just smile and wave,” Lee said with a grin. “They may not be able to see me smile, but maybe they can see my eyebrows.”
Since the end of March, the 39-year-old has been driving for GrabResponse, a dedicated non-emergency transport service that ferries suspected COVID-19 cases to hospitals.
He estimates that he has completed more than 45 trips over the past month and a half, picking up people such as those on a stay-home notice, returnees to Singapore as well as foreign workers.
Both he and Wong Leng Pheng, another GrabResponse driver, were among the first few to volunteer for GrabResponse. It did not take long for what they were doing to make an impact on them.
The first passengers Wong picked up were a mother and her two young children, and he remembers the mother talking to them about “what would happen if (they) test positive”.
“I can’t do much (except) drive them safely to hospital ... When (they) alighted, I could only say, ‘Don’t worry — just take care.’ I said, ‘I’ll pray for you,’” recounted the 54-year-old.
“I sympathised with them and felt a little sad that this COVID-19 has affected many people’s lives in a way, especially those young ones.”
HOW IT WORKS
The GrabResponse service, piloted in late March, is part of a Ministry of Health (MOH) initiative that ropes in drivers of private-hire vehicles and taxis to convey “stable and clinically well” people suspected of having COVID-19 to hospitals.
This, said the MOH in response to queries from CNA Insider, is meant to complement existing ambulance services. Besides Grab, these drivers come from other operators like SMRT subsidiary Strides Transportation and, more recently, ComfortDelGro.
READ: Grab drivers, vehicles from SMRT unit deployed to help Health Ministry take suspect COVID-19 cases to hospital
Their vehicles are reserved for the MOH’s use and are despatched by call centre operators for the 993 ambulance service. They are unavailable for public booking when they are part of the MOH fleet.
In total, more than 500 trained private-hire and taxi drivers are on standby. As of May 15, these transport operators have made more than 1,300 trips, said the MOH.
From Grab, more than 250 drivers have volunteered and have been trained for the service; and they have made more than 460 trips, according to the company.
READ: 45 buses ferrying up to 600 COVID-19 patients from hospitals, dorms to community care facilities daily
It was previously reported that about 70 drivers were deployed from Strides Transportation, while about 20 ComfortDelGro cabbies are now providing the service, according to ComfortDelGro group chief corporate communications officer Tammy Tan.
They work in teams of five, she said, and each team is scheduled to provide transport service twice every week. They started on Apr 29 and have completed more than 40 trips.
“Cabbies who expressed interest to be part of this transport service team attended a four-hour-long training on medical and safety protocols conducted by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) before they were deployed,” she added.
Drivers are required to put on PPE for every trip, and taxis are disinfected after each trip.
This is also the case for Grab. According to the company, the SCDF’s “comprehensive training” covered topics like reporting guidelines, the donning and doffing of PPE and the handling of used and potentially contaminated PPE, including safe discarding and decontamination.
Grab Singapore managing director Yee Wee Tang said it has also developed a “concierge booking web portal”, which allows MOH despatchers to book rides on behalf of suspected COVID-19 cases.
This allows them to make multiple, concurrent bookings remotely and gives them the flexibility to manage every booking and assigned ride through a live-monitoring dashboard.
Despatchers are then able to share booking details with passengers for live tracking of their ride, while drivers can communicate with passengers to verify their identities.
There is also a WhatsApp group chat manned by Grab employees to deal with any queries or issues faced by drivers or despatchers.
As for ComfortDelGro’s system, Tan said its call centre receives the job details from the MOH’s telecentre and then despatches them to taxis via its Mobile Data Terminal.
WHAT THEIR DAY IS LIKE
Six days a week, Lee works eight hours starting from 8am. But his day starts earlier, as he must travel from his home in Lakeside to Marymount to pick up his vehicle, a HDT electric taxi, from his company’s office.
He could previously drive his taxi home, but this is no longer the case, he said, because GrabResponse drivers are not allowed to use their vehicles for any purpose other than ferrying suspected patients.
To begin his shift, he drives his taxi to a designated waiting area — in his case, a car park in an industrial area near Toa Payoh Polyclinic — where he turns on his driver app to wait for calls.
Once a call comes in, it is standard procedure as he puts on his PPE in careful order: First, his mask, then his gown and finally the gloves and goggles.
“It took a little while to get used to it,” he said. “From the second week onwards, it was like a daily routine.
“In the initial stage, some of us drivers were on standby together, so we helped (each other) put on the PPE, (such as) the gown (and) tied the knots.”
The drivers would be sent on their way with wishes for good luck and reminders to stay safe, he added. “These are things we do to encourage each other.”
There is still much to do after changing into the PPE and heading to the pick-up point: Contacting the passengers, verifying their identity — and ensuring that they wear a mask, stressed Wong. If they do not have a mask, the drivers can provide one.
After he drops off a passenger, Wong drives to a decontamination area at the hospital to sanitise his vehicle.
“We use sanitising solution to clean up the seats, handles, belts … the whole vehicle actually, before we remove the PPE,” he said, adding that the PPE must be placed in a bag and disposed of in a biohazard bin.
WATCH: I drive COVID-19 patients to the hospital in my car (3:45)
The process of picking up and dropping off a passenger takes, on average, about an hour. Then the drivers return to their standby area to await the next call.
A TAXI INSTEAD OF AN AMBULANCE?
In their time with GrabResponse, both drivers highlighted the surprise to passengers and clinic staff alike upon seeing their vehicles pull up at the pick-up points.
Besides a sign stuck to the windscreen identifying their vehicles as an MOH conveyance service, there is nothing else to distinguish them from other taxis on the roads.
“In the earlier stages, when I picked up patients from clinics, the nurse would come out and say, ‘No, no, no taxi!’” Lee recalled with a laugh.
“I’d have to explain to them that I’ve been engaged by the MOH to bring the patient to hospital.”
Passengers often express surprise because they are expecting an ambulance — and a longer wait, said Wong.
“The doctors and nurses tell them they have to wait for an hour … So sometimes when I call them to tell them I’ve arrived, it’s been 15 to 20 minutes, and they’re sitting there having coffee and not ready yet.”
Sometimes, said Lee, he has called passengers to tell them in advance that he is driving a green taxi.
But as the weeks went by, he started becoming a familiar sight, particularly when he has made repeat trips to the same place to pick up passengers.
“There was once I had to pick up five patients from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in a day,” he said. “After a while, the nurses there just went, ‘Oh, it’s you again.’”
While the majority of trips are made to hospitals, there are those occasions when drivers pick up passengers from the hospitals. Either way, they are distinctive figures on the roads because of their PPE, attracting stares even from pedestrians.
But, quite apart from that, driving while wearing the PPE can be challenging.
“For the first 15 minutes it’s fine,” said Lee. “But then ... you start to perspire, your goggles start to fog up, and it becomes more of a challenge to stay focused.”
The windows must be wound down when there are passengers, to ensure air circulation. But that means hot air blowing in, and “when that happens”, he said, “I feel like I’m in a pressure cooker”.
“All my respect goes to healthcare workers,” he added. “For me, it’s a matter of half an hour or (an) hour ... I complete my job and I can stay in the car with cool air to stop me from perspiring.”
Surprise, discomfort and amusing anecdotes aside, there is another set of emotions that permeate his taxi when he is ferrying passengers.
“I can sense their anxiety,” he said. “They won’t talk to me, but they’d make calls to their family members, and I can feel that uncertainty.”
DWINDLING NUMBER OF CALLS
A Grab driver since 2015, Lee “didn’t have to think twice” before signing up with GrabResponse. “The good thing is that I still have a job to do when so many people are losing their jobs,” he said.
“At the same time, I feel that I’m helping to ease the burden on all the paramedics and ambulance drivers, who may be required for more serious cases.”
Both drivers were financially affected when COVID-19 hit and demand for private hire services dropped. Wong, for example, disclosed that his fare takings dropped by about 40 per cent in March.
But as he receives a fixed weekly salary as a GrabResponse driver, he has been able to get about 95 per cent of his usual income.
At the back of his mind, however, there is the worry about being exposed to the coronavirus — and bringing it home to his wife. “It’s only natural to think about the ‘what-ifs’,” he said, “even though we’re fully geared.”
To this end, he takes extra precautions to keep his wife safe. He makes a point of decontaminating his vehicle again after his shift ends and sanitising his hands before he goes home.
Once he arrives home, he heads for a shower, and soaks his clothes in detergent for two hours before washing them.
It has been a busy month and a half for the two drivers, who had to adjust to their new routine. But recently, the number of calls they have received has dwindled.
While Lee used to have about 10 to 15 calls a week, he estimates that it has dropped to about three to four. In one of the weeks, he did not receive any call.
His time in the vehicle is spent watching shows on Netflix or reading the news and e-books he borrows from the library.
He does not leave the taxi except to visit the toilet, get lunch or stretch his legs sometimes. But he remains online regardless. It is a different type of fatigue, he said, waiting for calls that do not come in.
“It can get a bit demoralising,” he added. “I went from getting tired from going to too many places to getting tired from sitting in the car and doing nothing, but remaining alert and on standby.”
But he stressed that the declining number of calls is a good sign — a reflection of the declining number of cases in the community. “Hopefully, in time to come, I might not have to be a GrabResponse driver any more.”