SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) raised a wide range of concerns including disruptions caused by COVID-19 restrictions, extending support for hard-hit sectors and the mental toll of the pandemic, during a lengthy debate on the Government’s latest COVID-19 support measures on Tuesday (Jul 27).
The support package for the current Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), which will last for four weeks until Aug 18, was announced by the Ministry of Finance last week.
Expected to cost S$1.1 billion, it includes higher wage support under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) and rental relief for eligible businesses.
Taken together with the S$1.2 billion package announced weeks earlier to cover the period of “heightened alert” since mid-May, the Government will be setting aside more than S$2 billion to support those affected by the tightened measures.
READ: S$1.1 billion support package for workers, businesses hit by Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) restrictions
COPING WITH CHANGES IN COVID-19 RULES
Several MPs noted that the many changes in safety protocols since May - while understandable given the spike in COVID-19 community cases - have been disruptive for businesses.
Many, such as those in sectors like food and beverage (F&B), sports and performing arts, are facing cash flow woes due to the start-stop situation.
With the lack of certainty, business owners find it hard to decide if they should stay the course or pivot, said MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied), adding that the same applies to individual workers.
Some policies are also “painfully complicated”, he added, such as differentiated group limits for dine-ins, which was announced days before authorities confirmed a return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).
“Beyond this round of P2HA, Singaporeans and businesses need more clarity on how the roadmap for reopening is going to be implemented. After Aug 18, if more large clusters break out, will we need to brace ourselves for more rolling lockdowns?” Mr Giam asked.
READ: Return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) does not change roadmap of treating COVID-19 as endemic: Ong Ye Kung
MP Foo Mee Har (PAP-West Coast) said “some quarters remain sceptical” about how well Singapore will execute and carry though its roadmap to treat COVID-19 as endemic.
She added that one can expect “living with COVID” to include intermittent outbreaks and even the emergence of new variants every now and then.
Ms Foo then suggested establishing “a suite of leading indicators that better predict the imposition of restrictions so that businesses and members of the public are not constantly caught by surprise”.
Describing this as “a so-called COVID index”, these indicators could be based on various key health metrics such as infection, vaccination and hospitalisation rates.
Mr Giam also proposed publishing a daily “science-based risk index” that weighs various factors such as vaccination and hospitalisation rates, as well as contact tracing efficiency.
“I'm not suggesting that the (multi-ministry task force) should be bound by this risk index when deciding on policies. However, the index can serve as a guide to both policymakers and the public to understand the current risk levels and adapt accordingly,” he said.
MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) mooted the idea of having a roadmap with “support measures peg to respective restriction levels”, as part of supporting businesses in a more sustainable manner.
She also noted how some business owners “struggle to make sense of the various schemes available”, while facing problems due to delays or uncertainties relating to the timing and amount of support they are eligible for.
“If the intention is to support these businesses, we must make sure that our support is effective and as efficient as possible,” she said.
READ: 'Practically all' social, workplace COVID-19 restrictions could be lifted in 'truly endemic state': Gan Kim Yong
In a wrap-up speech delivered at the end of the debate, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong sought to explain the rationale behind the recent tightening of COVID-19 measures.
“Everyone needs to understand that we are operating in a highly fluid and rapidly-changing, and very uncertain environment,” he told the House.
Cases were in single-digits and were coming down in early-July, said the co-chair of the country’s COVID-19 task force.
But the KTV lounges cluster emerged, followed by another cluster at the Jurong Fishery Port which authorities assessed to be “much more serious” given how cases were in the community through wet markets and hawker centres, as well as inadequate vaccine coverage in the population.
“That’s why we decided that we had to return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) and I think if you look at the facts today, I am fully convinced that that was the right judgment call,” he said.
The Jurong Fishery Port remains the largest active cluster in Singapore with 902 infections as of Tuesday, while the KTV lounges cluster has 245 cases.
Cases of hospitalisation and those who are very ill have also gone up by three and a half times in the past week, Mr Wong said.
“So it is a very difficult decision,” said Mr Wong. “I know everyone is frustrated about the measures … but I hope members in this House understand too.”
The minister also reiterated how Singapore will review some COVID-19 restrictions early next month “for vaccinated persons only”, depending on the overall situation.
READ: COVID-19 restrictions to be reviewed in early August, any easing only for vaccinated people: Lawrence Wong
In his ministerial statement on Monday, Mr Wong had mentioned how the Government expects around 80 per cent of the population to have received two doses of the vaccine by early September. It also hopes to have covered a similar proportion of those aged 70 and above.
“Then we can make the next move of easing,” he said. “So that's already revealing some sense of what roadmap one can expect. It's not all the details because we are still fleshing out details around specific measures and potentially next steps after September.
“And as I said, when we are ready (and) when we have more information, we will certainly share this with Singaporeans,” added Mr Wong.
Other longer-term questions raised by MPs include making safe management measures and COVID-19 testing more affordable for businesses.
MP Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) said while giving relief to businesses has helped in the immediate and interim, authorities will need to find ways to better handle the cost of operating in the new normal where safety protocols will still be required.
MP Sharael Taha (PAP-Pasir Ris-Punggol) highlighted the need to take into consideration those who are employed in temporary COVID-19 related roles - such as swabbers, safe distancing ambassadors and vaccination staff.
“These temporary roles may no longer be required as more and more people are vaccinated. What can we do now to avoid a situation of structural unemployment for these workers in temporary roles as we prepare for the transition to normalcy?” he asked.
READ: Return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) will not derail Singapore’s economic recovery: Lawrence Wong
READ: The Big Read: Saved by COVID-19 jobs, thousands now have to mull their future as Singapore looks to exit crisis
HELPING AFFECTED BUSINESSES
MPs also called for more support for businesses hit hard by the recent tightening of COVID-19 measures.
The government had announced earlier that it would increase wage subsidies under an enhanced Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to 60 per cent for sectors that have been required to suspend the majority of their activities during the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) period from Jul 22 to Aug 18.
These include F&B outlets, gyms and performing arts organisations.
However, MP Liang Eng Hwa (PAP-Bukit Panjang) asked if the Government could consider extending the JSS to more businesses, such as wholesale trades, logistics, distributors and suppliers to the F&B sector.
These businesses, he said, functioned in tandem with F&B outlets and so, whenever the sector enters a lockdown, they are also directly impacted.
In response, Mr Wong said the Government considers appeals from businesses, adding that the JSS support has been extended to nearly 6,000 companies.
MPs, including Ms He and Mr Edward Chia (PAP-Holland–Bukit Timah), also highlighted cash flow as a major concern for small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) with depleting cash reserves.
Mr Wong said the Government will strive to push out the support “as fast as (it) can”, and try to ensure a steady stream of cash payouts to businesses.
“We will do so within our operational limits while ensuring accuracy and good governance. In fact, government assistance is now flowing such that there is cash flow support to businesses throughout the year,” he added.
He said that eligible firms have been receiving quarterly JSS payouts since April last year with the most recent one paid in June. He added that cash payouts under the rental support scheme will be given in August, before the next JSS payout in September.
Another area of concern that was highlighted during the debate was the mental toll caused by the pandemic.
MP Raeesah Khan (WP-Sengkang) and MP Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) spoke about the stresses and pressures brought about by the long-drawn pandemic, asking if more could be done to improve the country’s mental health infrastructure and to provide appropriate support for individuals.
In response, Mr Wong said that a new taskforce has been set up by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social and Family Development to coordinate and oversee the issue of mental health and wellness.
He added that the Government, along with healthcare professionals and social service agencies, has also stepped up efforts and invested “significant” resources to enhance the mental well-being of Singaporeans.
Focus areas include awareness, prevention, destigmatisation of mental health issues and treatment, he said.
Several MPs, including Mr Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) and Mr Mohd Fahmi Aliman (PAP-Marine Parade) also raised concerns about the mental health of migrant workers, who have been largely confined to their dormitories for more than a year.
Mr Wong said the Government will look after them, adding that with clusters emerging in the community, authorities are “quite” worried that migrant workers might catch the virus if they were to go out.
However, with high vaccination rates among migrant workers in the dormitories, Mr Wong said the task force is looking at giving more allowance for migrant workers to go to recreational centres and spend more time there, as well as giving them time to be out in the community.