SINGAPORE: The control of infectious diseases within Singapore will be given a shot in the arm through amendments made to the Infectious Diseases Act.
Among the changes are measures for tighter restrictions on the movement of high-risk individuals.
Speaking during the second reading of the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Bill, Senior Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min said that an infectious person served an isolation order may abscond, totally disregarding the risk to others.
While the current Act allows them to be arrested without a warrant and to be jailed or fined on conviction, an arrest does not directly mitigate the immediate public health risk of transmitting the disease to others.
The amendment would allow health officials to take necessary measures, including the use of physical means, to enforce a legal order served under the Act, for example by bringing an absconder back to the place of isolation, in lieu of arrest, Dr Lam said.
"It also makes explicit that persons under legal orders that restrict their movement in Singapore, would not be allowed to leave Singapore, unless otherwise permitted," he said.
ALLOWING MOH TO SHARE INDIVIDUALS' INFORMATION FOR RESEARCH
One amendment surrounding the control of infectious diseases within Singapore includes allowing the Ministry of Health (MOH) to share with third-party researchers samples or information that can be traced back to individuals. Currently, only anonymised data can be shared with them.
Government Parliamentary Chairman for Health Dr Chia Shi-Lu, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Melvin Yong and MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng asked about safeguards for the use and disclosure of such information to protect the privacy and confidentiality of individuals.
In response, Dr Lam said that individually-identifiable information or samples will be used only if the Director of Medical Services is satisfied that the research can only be carried out with them.
Another amendment would allow authorities to restrict people from their occupations when he or she is infected, if doing their jobs poses a risk of spread to others.
For example, food handlers tested positive for diseases that spread through food would be required to stop work, Dr Lam said.
“This stop-work requirement is a blanket one," Lam said, explaining that the affected worker will not be allowed to perform other back-end tasks that do not involve direct contact with food.
Mr Yong and MP for Bukit Batok SMC Murali Pillai urged the Government to provide support to help mitigate the loss of income arising from this measure.
In response, Dr Lam said that support for people whose livelihoods are seriously affected by public health measures is important.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Government provided ex-gratia payments to eligible persons on home quarantine orders, and employees of small businesses which were ordered to be shut, he said. Additional help was also provided through the Community Development Council.
"These are some examples of viable sources of assistance, and my Ministry will work with the relevant agencies to ensure that adequate support is provided where necessary," he said.
MORE FLEXIBILITY TO DENY UNVACCINATED TRAVELLERS
To prevent the introduction of infectious diseases into Singapore, changes to the Act will give authorities more flexibility to turn away unvaccinated travellers without the need to first provide vaccination, isolation or surveillance.
Currently, Singapore only requires travellers entering from Yellow Fever endemic areas to prove that they have been vaccinated. Dr Lam said that there are about 50 travellers a year without the required Yellow Fever vaccination.
For these travellers, MOH implements isolation, surveillance or vaccination to mitigate the risk of spreading and importing the disease. If they do not comply, they may be refused entry. However, travellers who are non-citizens cannot be refused entry without first offering them mitigation measures.
"While we can vaccinate and monitor small numbers of travellers, it would not be practicable to do so if the numbers increase to hundreds or thousands, for example, if countries with high travel volume to Singapore are affected but fail to get their travellers vaccinated despite international advice," said Dr Lam.
"In such a circumstance, the entry of large numbers of unvaccinated travellers poses both a health and public security threat to our community."
MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Joan Pereira asked if proof of vaccination from visitors can be checked before they arrive in Singapore.
"Are the vaccination certificates presented when they arrive in Singapore or at the point of embarkation? I think it is a safer arrangement for us to have preemptive arrangements with foreign ports to require travellers present proof before they part for Singapore," said Ms Pereira.
In response, Dr Lam said that MOH is working with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and the airline association to examine how travellers from affected countries can be better educated on the need for vaccination.
"Airlines have the burden of bringing travellers who are denied entry back to the country of embarkation, so they have a strong incentive to remind and verify that travellers have been vaccinated," said Dr Lam.