Returning to the "new normal" in Singapore after the Circuit Breaker

Singapore

This article is produced by CMS Holborn Asia, a Formal Law Alliance between CMS Singapore and Holborn Law LLC.

After a “circuit breaker” period of eight (8) weeks, the Singapore Government has announced that it is ready to relax certain restrictions in response to local COVID-19 transmission numbers coming down. That said, to prevent a “second wave” of cases, the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”) has introduced certain requirements to ensure that workplaces remain safe for returning employees even with the relaxed “circuit breaker” measures.

We summarise some of the key requirements for employers and employees and set out our takeaways below.

1. Taking care of your employees: Reducing physical interaction and ensuring safe distancing in the workplace

The Government has emphasised the following:

  • Despite the fact that the “circuit breaker” is being lifted, working from home must be the default mode of working. Employees who have been working from home thus far must continue to do so and go to the office only where there is no alternative. To this end, the Government has made available certain resources and grants to assist companies in adopting the necessary IT solutions to implement telecommuting.

  • All internal and external meetings should be conducted virtually where possible. If there is a critical need for physical meetings to take place, precautions should be taken to ensure safe distancing of at least one (1) metre between persons at all times and that the duration of these meetings are kept short.

  • Employers are to cancel or defer all events involving close and prolonged contact among participants such as seminars, exhibitions or even office team bonding activities. Employers must also ensure that employees do not congregate at common spaces in the workplace, including during meals or breaks.

  • Special attention should be paid to employees more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 (e.g. elderly employees, employees with underlying medical conditions, pregnant employees) to enable them to work from home or to redeploy them accordingly.

  • For job roles or functions where employees cannot work from home, additional precautions should be taken such as staggered working and break hours and/or implementing split-team arrangements ensuring that cross-deployment and interaction between teams is prohibited.

  • Employers must ensure that all onsite personnel, including employees, visitors, suppliers and contractors wear a mask and other necessary personal protective equipment at all times (except during activities that require a mask to be removed e.g. strenuous physical activity in the course of employment, or riding a motorcycle in the course of employment).

2. Ensuring cleanliness of workplaces

  • Employers must control access to the workplace to only essential employees and authorised visitors. They should also step up cleaning of workplace premises through regular cleaning of common spaces, touchpoints and areas with high human contract. Where meetings are held in common spaces, employers must clean and disinfect tables between each meeting.

  • Cleaning agents such as hand soap must be available at hand-wash stations and disinfecting agents such as hand sanitizers must be installed at all human traffic stoppage points such as reception areas, security booths, lift lobbies as well as common spaces such as meeting rooms, pantries and canteens.

3. Implementing a protocol to manage potential cases

  • Regular checks for temperature and respiratory symptoms for all employees and visitors must be conducted twice daily (or where relevant) and employers must be able to demonstrate that these checks are in place during inspections. Employers should encourage employees to download and activate the TraceTogether app which has been developed to assist the Ministry of Health to quickly identify potential close contacts of COVID-19 patients.

  • Employees who have visited a clinic must submit to their employers records of their medical certificates and diagnoses provided (only for COVID-19 related symptoms such as respiratory infections) and if they were tested for COVID-19 (and the results of their tests). Where possible, employers must ensure that each employee visits only one clinic for check-ups if unwell. 

  • An evacuation plan must be prepared for unwell or suspected cases as well as for other on-site personnel. Any employee feeling unwell or showing symptoms of illness should report to his employer and leave the workplace to consult a doctor immediately.

In the event of a confirmed case, a follow-up plan must be put in place. This must include the following precautionary measures:

  1. Immediately vacating and cordoning off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked (if there is no sustained and close contact with the confirm case there is no need to vacate the building or floor); and

  2. Carrying out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting all relevant on-site areas and assets that were exposed to confirmed cases in accordance with guidelines from the National Environment Agency.

4. Implementing Safe Management Measures in the workplace

The Government has released general as well as certain industry-specific Safe Management Measures (“SMMs”) that it expects all employers to put in place for as long as necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these general measures include:

  • Implementing a detailed monitoring plan to ensure compliance with SMMs, to remedy non-compliance and to mitigate risks in the workplace.

  • Appointing a Safe Management Officer (“SMO”) to assist in the implementation and monitoring of SMMs. The SMO’s key roles are to ensure proper implementation of the SMMs in workplaces and to keep records of inspections, checks and corrective actions taken. These records must be made available upon the request of a Government Inspector.

Employers must ensure that the measures above are in place, communicated and explained to employees prior to resuming work.

Takeaways

  • The Government’s message from the suite of requirements above is clear – Singapore is still very much in the fight against COVID-19 and all employers and employees are expected to play their part.

  •  While the Government has signalled its intention to gradually relax restrictions over the course of the coming weeks and months, this will ultimately depend on whether the requirements and measures put in place by MOM and other governmental agencies successfully stem a “second wave” of COVID-19 transmissions.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a radical re-think about the way people interact and work. The Supreme Court of Singapore have implemented various protocols / practice directions to ensure cases continue to progress during the “circuit breaker”. Virtual hearings have become a part of the norm with ‘essential’ and ‘urgent’ matters heard over online video conferencing facilities in the past two months. The effect has spilled over into other popular forms of dispute resolution such as international arbitration. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre has put in place virtual hearing facilities for use by parties and created new protocols for online submission of cases since April 2020.

  • Further from home, popular social media platform Twitter has informed their staff that they can work from home indefinitely if they wish. In sports, the German Bundesliga has resumed action on its football pitches with safe-distancing measures in place (including playing to empty stadia until further notice) and other popular European football leagues, such as the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, will be following suit shortly.

  • One of the lasting effects of the “new normal” after COVID-19 may be a more concerted push for employees to telecommute / work outside office premises. The way of life as we know it pre-COVID-19 is likely to be permanently over. Now is the time for employers to embrace change, innovation and technology if they do not wish to be left behind.