SINGAPORE: While on house visits, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) investigation officer Ganesh Reddi Gurusamy has been berated, asked to retrieve letters from the mailbox and stepped in to solve technical difficulties.
"There was one instance where we visited this old uncle and the moment we come to the door, he was like: 'Are you guys the house visit team?' And he started to really get angry with us," recalled Staff Sergeant (SSGT) Ganesh, who for about three months was part of the team conducting house visits on those serving stay-home notices.
"The moment you listen to them, they calm down. The uncle ended up saying: 'Boy, I understand. I'm very angry (because) every day I sit at home ... and look at the ceiling'," said SSGT Ganesh.
"Most of the time they understand; it is only the initial part where they are really mad. At that point, nothing goes in. After that, it is okay."
Since February, about 460 personnel including officers from the Home Team agencies and contracted external agencies have been deployed to conduct spot checks on people on stay-home notices, said ICA.
The house visits are part of a three-pronged approach, which includes text messages and phone calls, to ensure that the stay-home notices are adhered to.
Individuals who have been issued stay-home notices are required to remain at home at all times for 14 days, as a precautionary measure to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission in Singapore.
The notice is stricter than a leave of absence, which allows people to leave their homes briefly to have a meal or buy household supplies, but slightly more flexible than a home quarantine order, which requires individuals to be separated from others within the same home.
The task of enforcing stay-home notices has brought with it a number of challenges when it comes to the novelty, volume and scope of operations, said Superintendent (SUPT) Tan Hoe Koon, who is deputy director of the intelligence division.
"Stay-home notice enforcement operations were totally new to us. We'd not done anything like this before. When it first started, it was very tough because we didn't expect the massiveness of the issue," said SUPT Tan, who oversees the enforcement of stay-home notices for ICA.
"But I have to give it to my team, they stayed prepared, they stayed flexible. Whenever there are fast-evolving border control measures, they are always there to adapt," said SUPT Tan.
The stay-home notice was first implemented on Feb 18 for Singapore residents, long-term pass holders and foreign work pass holders returning from mainland China outside Hubei province.
It was later expanded to include travellers returning from several different countries, before being made mandatory for anyone entering Singapore, including citizens and residents.
As of May 19, the ICA has issued more than 70,000 stay-home notices and at the peak of operations had monitored about 40,000 individuals serving those orders, said SUPT Tan.
During the peak, officers conducted about 1,200 house visits daily.
This "strain on resources" meant gathering ICA officers from various different departments as well as from Home Team agencies to join in efforts, said SUPT Tan.
"The numbers have plateaued to much lower, but the framework is still in place. The load has decreased but the framework and diligence to be put into these administration remains the same," he added.
As of May 19, the ICA is monitoring about 2,000 individuals on stay-home notices.
"Enforcing the stay-home notices is not just about making sure this person stays at home. There's a lot more behind it," said SUPT Tan.
"There are many exceptional cases that we need to take into consideration. Their issues may span across a few government agencies or ministries, so we have to identify what the issue is and which ministries and agencies we need to work with to address those issues," said SUPT Tan.
These cases include appeals from individuals to be exempted from the stay-home notice, or to be given a short-term excuse from the order because of certain "really urgent or personal" issues, added SUPT Tan.
'THE EYES AND THE EARS'
Officers on house visit teams are briefed and prepped to work 12-hour shifts in general. Each pair of officers will take on about 10 to 12 house visits per shift.
Once the officers receive the list of addresses they are to visit, they will decide on the most efficient route to take. This "prep work" takes about an hour, said SUPT Tan.
They will then spend the next eight to 10 hours conducting the visits, and report any feedback or issues to headquarters.
The job of an officer on stay-home notice duty is akin to the "eyes and the ears" of the operations branch, said SSGT Ganesh.
During the house visits, officers will enquire about the well-being of the resident, and "make sure that the resident is who it is supposed to be".
"We make sure they actually know that they have to stay at home for 14 days. We also have to verify this because when they send out these SMSes and phone calls, some of these people don't receive it. Some of them (have phones) on flight mode or their phones don't work, so we have to make sure they receive all our information," SSGT Ganesh.
In the event that the individual serving the stay-home notice cannot receive messages, there are other avenues to reach out to them, such as phone calls and house visits, said SUPT Tan.
"There was one instance where technology was a problem. They said that they had not been receiving SMSes," recalled SSGT Ganesh.
"I roughly understood that when you go overseas, you set (the phone to) auto roam ... When we checked, it was on flight mode. The moment we (turned the flight mode off) all the SMSes came in ... You go there like a mediator, basically like a technology person, trying to sort out their phone."
There have been some instances where family members go to great lengths to isolate the individual on stay-home notice from the rest of the household, said SSGT Ganesh.
"This meant locking them in a room, and only opening the door to pass them food.
"One girl came out with her hair all (messy), she was like: 'I haven't even seen broad daylight and I've been stuck in here for I don't know many days", said SSGT Ganesh.
Others just want a listening ear, said Checkpoint Inspector 1 CI(1) Nurhayati Adnan, who was with the house visit team for about a month.
"Especially for those older people, they are stuck inside the house and want dearly to have somebody to talk to," she said. "So sometimes when we come to their house, they will just pour out their hearts to us ... We try to talk to them."
'ARE YOU SAFE DOING THESE VISITS?'
The main challenge to overcome for CI(1) Nurhayati were concerns from family members over her safety.
"On the first day itself, I had to cover like 12 to 13 houses, and it was a big shock to me," said CI(1) Nurhayati, who had been temporarily redeployed from her role at ICA's sea domain response team.
"We don't know if the person we are visiting has contracted the virus," she said.
"My family was asking: 'Are you safe doing these visits? The virus is already everywhere already - we don't know if they have it or not.' I was blessed that my family understood after that. The challenges are answering to my family."
Officers on house visit teams bring hand sanitisers as well as wear gloves and a surgical mask during visits.
They are not allowed to step into the houses of the people they visit, and are required to keep a safe distance from those individuals.
"My first question (when I was assigned this role) was ... 'If I visited the person, what if I get it?' I'm also married and have two young kids, so my biggest concern is what if I go back home after doing house visits and spread it to them," recalled SSGT Ganesh.
"One of the things that makes us feel that we can do this is because of the personal protective equipment (PPE) ... With that we know we have protection, that is like a first line of defence for us. If every officer is going to back out from this, how is this going to work? ... We have to do this enforcement, ensure the community is safe."
As a additional precaution, both SSGT Ganesh and CI(1) Nurhayati also take a shower immediately after returning to their respective homes.
Said CI(1) Nurhayati: "When I reach home, I don't meet my husband. I go straight to my bathroom for a shower then I meet him."
And should breaches occur, a team of ICA's investigation officers such as Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Khairul Nasir step in.
"ICA has been leading these checks for people under stay-home notices and so during the house visits they will encounter instances of breaches ... This will be surfaced and flagged out to us," he explained.
"On top of that, we receive information from tip-offs, from the public, or our other agency counterparts."
This team will assess the facts of the case before the information is passed to an ICA-led task force. This task force comprises 43 investigators from the ICA and other Home Team agencies such as the Singapore Police Force.
The task force works together with a team of prosecutors from the Attorney-General's Chambers to investigate and prosecute those who flout the orders.
"We have to find ways to ensure that we have enough facts and evidence for us to actually build a case," said ASP Khairul. "We have cases where it is straightforward, whereby they are cooperative and say: 'Yes, I did go out.'
"For these cases, it is quite swift, we can do it in one or two days. But there are cases where they do not want to admit or they give different facts so we need to investigate a bit further. This is where we need to engage our different partners."
Individuals who fail to comply with stay-home notices may face prosecution under Section 21A of the Infectious Diseases Act. Among other penalties, first-time offenders are liable for a fine of up to S$10,000, jail of up to six months, or both.
Both SSGT Ganesh and CI(1) Nurhayati have not come across an instance where an individual on stay-home notice was not at home.
But there have been close shaves, such as when one of those individuals was unresponsive for almost 45 minutes.
"We really thought the guy was not there, we kept calling him, no answer," said SSGT Ganesh. "We waited a good 45 minutes and we thought he wasn't there ... We kept calling and suddenly the door opened and he asked us who we were."