MPs raise questions on Jurong Fishery Port, Sinovac, differentiated measures for fully vaccinated people
SINGAPORE: Differentiated measures for people who are fully vaccinated, the Jurong Fishery Port cluster and the Sinovac vaccine were among the topics raised by Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday (Jul 26).
Their questions followed a series of ministerial statements given by the three co-chairs of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force - Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Minister for Trade and Finance Gan Kim Yong - as well as Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.
The three co-chairs of the task force had said that nearly all social and workplace restrictions could be lifted as vaccination coverage in Singapore increases.
The Government will review some COVID-19 restrictions early next month, but any easing of measures will be only for those who are fully vaccinated, as they are “much better protected” against the virus, said Mr Wong in his speech.
During the debate following the ministerial statements, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh asked whether unvaccinated individuals would need to pay for the additional tests they have to take.
He also asked whether Singapore’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines is on track to match the plan for more measures to be eased in early September.
Responding to his questions, Mr Wong clarified that for some activities and settings, only vaccinated people will be allowed to participate.
“And from the Government side, the rule will be that if the person is not fully vaccinated, then he will have to produce a confirmed negative test. That is the requirement now,” he added.
Venue operators and owners can decide how to implement this, as some of them may want to do it for free, to allow unvaccinated individuals to participate, said the Finance Minister.
“Individual organisations that are looking at the framework can decide whether or not they want to provide the test for their customers, or (whether) they will require the customers to get the test from a clinic,” he added.
The testing system will also evolve, said Mr Gan. “For example, in time to come, if you’ve gotten a negative test result, you may be able to enter multiple events and multiple premises. So it’s not just one event to one test.”
READ: 'Practically all' social, workplace COVID-19 restrictions could be lifted in 'truly endemic state': Gan Kim Yong
READ: Return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) does not change roadmap of treating COVID-19 as endemic: Ong Ye Kung
As soon as Singapore reaches a vaccination rate of 80 per cent and above in September or October this year, the Government can “move in a bigger way” to reopen the economy, said Mr Gan in response to Mr Singh’s questions.
“But I also want to point out that we are not likely to have a big bang opening, to allow everything to be done in one go, because it is important for us ... to continue to monitor the impact on serious cases,” said the Trade and Industry Minister.
There is still a vaccine shortage across the world and many developing countries are still trying to secure supplies, said Mr Ong.
Singapore had negotiated for advance purchasing agreements with major vaccine suppliers early in the pandemic, he added.
“And lately, we were able to discuss and able to bring forward and confirm some of the delivery schedule. So as of now, for the past month or two, actually we have not had a supply problem,” said the Health Minister.
“Our constraint now is we need more, especially our seniors, to come forward and get vaccinated.”
On the COVID-19 cluster linked to KTV lounges, Mr Singh, who is also MP for Aljunied, noted that there was “lots of disappointment” among Singaporeans.
“But I thought it would be important to have at least some understanding of common facts before coming to conclusions.”
He asked if there were heightened enforcement regimes or “specific attention” paid to the outlets after KTV lounges pivoted to food and beverage establishments.
“Were additional conditions imposed on certain operators in view of their past record or reputation? And in this regard, again, was there a differentiated regime from the enforcement agencies to pay more attention to some of these establishments?” he asked.
READ: Police conducted average of one enforcement operation a day on KTV, illegal nightlife outlets since October: Shanmugam
Responding to his questions, Mr Shanmugam said these outlets saw one enforcement action per day from October last year to July this year, which he described as “quite intense”.
This was on top of the rounds made by safe distancing ambassadors, he added.
READ: Return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) will not derail Singapore’s economic recovery: Lawrence Wong
Not all of the targeted outlets were pivoted KTV lounges or nightlife venues, said the Law and Home Affairs Minister.
“In fact, there were a number who were not to be operating at all … totally illegal operations. And I would say in terms of seriousness, those are particularly pernicious in terms of transmission, that kind of activities and so on,” he added.
Some F&B outlets that reopened also breached COVID-19 safe management measures, noted Mr Shanmugam.
“Don't mistake me to think that every single one was therefore engaging in what we might consider to be shady activities. Sometimes there were breaches also, but we needed to target a broad range.”
In his questions, Mr Singh also noted that seven establishments had their licenses revoked, and 10 per cent of the 400 pivoted outlets - or 40 venues - were in breach of safe management measures.
“Are the licenses for that 10 per cent … going to be revoked as well?” he asked.
The penalty for outlets who were found to have breached safe management measures depends on the nature of the breach, said Mr Shanmugam in response. There is a point system for breaches that will lead to closure of any outlet.
“I assume Mr Singh is not asking for closing down every operation as long as there’s any breach,” he said.
“Of course (for) egregious breaches, there will be closure. But I wouldn't ascribe to Mr Singh the suggestion that police now should get even tougher and just close everyone down as long as there is one breach.”
According to Mr Singh, several members of the public had told him that they had warned the authorities about the KTV outlets violating safe management measures.
“How many warnings or how many pieces of feedback did not just MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) but also MOH (Ministry of Health) and the other agencies receive on potential egregious SMM violations in KTV establishments?” he asked.
“Police have their own intelligence framework, their own ground framework and public tip-offs. A lot of crimes are solved by public tip-offs and they are important,” said Mr Shanmugam in his reply.
“They are taken seriously, and I assume that goes into the assessment framework on what operations to conduct.”
JURONG FISHERY PORT CLUSTER
MPs on both sides raised questions on a cluster of COVID-19 infections linked to the Jurong Fishery Port, which will be closed until Jul 31 for deep cleaning to break the chain of COVID-19 transmissions.
As of Monday, there are 853 cases linked to the Jurong Fishery Port/Hong Lim Market & Food Centre cluster, which remains the largest active cluster in the country.
MP Nadia Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) asked about the impact of the closure on Singapore’s supply of seafood and the measures taken to mitigate disruption to the supplies. She also asked how COVID-19 could have spread in the port and how the Government plans to ensure that the port reopens safely.
In response, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said that Singapore has worked closely with industry partners over the years to build diversified food supply chains, including seafood supplies.
“The Jurong Fishery Port handles about 30 per cent of our total seafood imports and is complemented by Senoko Fishery Port, SFP, which handles about 4 per cent of seafood imports,” she said.
The remaining two-thirds are distributed via other routes, she added.
“Our seafood supply has remained stable despite the closure of JFP and local disruptions at our markets.”
When Jurong Fishery Port closed, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and Enterprise Singapore responded “quickly” to make alternative arrangements including diverting supplies directly to supermarket distribution centres and retail outlets, Ms Fu said.
READ: Jurong Fishery Port cluster: No evidence of COVID-19 transmission through contaminated fish, says MOH
She added that there is “sufficient” stock of frozen seafood and that Senoko Fishery Port remains open.
There have been safe management measures implemented in key food facilities since the start of the pandemic, said Ms Fu. They include contactless delivery for truck drivers and boatmen, and controlled access for only workers and registered trade visitors.
Workers at the facilities are also encouraged to get vaccinated. About 76 per cent of workers at Jurong Fishery Port are fully vaccinated, with 86 per cent receiving at least one dose of the vaccine.
While Mr Ong said that the virus had “multiple points of entry”, Ms Fu added that the Government had identified some areas for improvement and will continue to investigate how the transmission took place.
For instance, the “humid and laborious environment” could have made it uncomfortable for workers to wear their masks for a prolonged period of time. This would make them more likely to adjust or remove their masks momentarily.
READ: ‘A lot of confusion’ for stallholders and fishmongers as stalls remain closed with COVID-19 testing under way
Some measures that will be implemented include regular cleaning of common areas and crates during port operations and a seven-day routine testing for all workers.
Workers will also have to step up contactless delivery protocols. Trade visitors not on any COVID-19 testing regimes will have to take antigen rapid tests (ARTs) before entering the port, and there will be more frequent patrols to ensure compliance with safe management measures.
Noting remarks at a recent COVID-19 multi-ministry task force press conference that indicated that the infections could have been introduced by fishing boats from other countries, MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) asked if foreign fishermen would be required to take a COVID-19 test or be vaccinated before entering the port.
Ms Fu said that while the hypothesis has not been confirmed, the Government is looking to strengthen safe management measures at the border.
While the Government has already implemented contactless delivery since April and tightened restrictions, it is still considering whether it should subject foreign fishermen to ARTs or require them to be vaccinated.
“Whatever we do, I think we are looking for practical solutions where we can do it without increasing the risks,” she said.
QUESTIONS ON SINOVAC
MP Lim Wee Kiak (PAP-Sembawang) and NCMP Hazel Poa (PSP) asked questions about the Sinovac vaccine, which is allowed in Singapore under the special access route after it was approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dr Lim said that when Sinovac was approved to be administered in Singapore, “many were very happy about it”. This was short-lived, he said, given that it was not considered as part of the national programme.
READ: Concessions will be extended to people vaccinated with Sinovac when evidence justifies it, says Ong Ye Kung
He noted that Singaporeans living overseas who have received vaccines other than Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna - the two vaccines under the national programme - will have to do a serology test, and if it shows that they have immunity, they will be indicated as vaccinated individuals.
While Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines employ the mRNA technology, Sinovac doses use an inactivated form of coronavirus to trigger an immune response to the virus.
Dr Lim asked if those vaccinated with Sinovac jabs and are willing to do a serology test can be similarly categorised and considered as “part of the vaccinated” when restrictions are lifted for those who are fully vaccinated.
In response, Mr Ong reiterated that the China’s Sinovac company has submitted data required for assessment under the Pandemic Special Access Route framework. He added that the Health Sciences Authority is trying to work “as fast as it can”, and that may take a month from Jul 5.
“If Sinovac (vaccine) gets approved … or other vaccines get approved under the Pandemic Special Access Route, then naturally we will want to take a more inclusive approach in recognising them,” he said.
Ms Poa said that there is a group of individuals who prefer vaccinations using the “traditional approach and have reservations about newer technologies”.
“Given that we are especially concerned about vaccination for our seniors, what avenues are there available for these seniors who prefer the traditional approach? Are there plans to further expand Sinovac vaccination?” she asked.
In response, Mr Ong suggested trying to explain to these seniors that the mRNA vaccines have been developed for “many many” years.
He noted that millions have taken such vaccines and that they have proven to be safe and effective. He added that every vaccine has its own side effects.
“It’s not something so noble and so new. It went through all the rigorous evaluation by different authorities and then (got) approved.”