SINGAPORE—To beef up the country’s safe distancing measures amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Parliament passed a bill on Tuesday (Apr 7) which effectively bans any and all social gatherings—regardless of the number of people present—in both private and public places.
COVID-19 Temporary Measures Bill
Speaking in front of Parliament, Singapore’s Health Minister Gan Kim Yong emphasised that the new bill, which is called the COVID-19 Temporary Measures Bill, will be strictly enforced.
The bill is meant to provide protection and support to businesses and individuals affected by the coronavirus outbreak. It also included provisions to provide the legal basis of implementing the enhanced safe distancing measures, according to Mr Gan, who called the new rules “temporary measures specific to the COVID-19 situation”.
All social gatherings, such as private parties in homes or in shared public spaces like HDB void decks, will no longer be allowed. Get-togethers with families or friends who do not live in the same household are expressly prohibited, the Health Minister stressed.
This is a big change from the previous rule, which was that gatherings outside of work or school be limited to no more than 10 persons.
The new bill, which will be enforced for six months, gives the health ministry the authority to “better regulate” events and gatherings, even ones that occur in private places. Mr Gan noted that the ministry had earlier “required certain events and mass gatherings to be deferred or cancelled” as it saw fit.
The bill also grants the minister the power to restrict individuals’ movements and social interactions to a specified place only (such as their place of residence). It also dictates that their use of common areas like void decks can be controlled by the health ministry, which has also been given the authorities to close premises down, in an effort to lessen interactions and lower COVID-19 transmission rates.
The new legislation gives the minister or any public officer appointed by the health minister the power to select “enforcement officers” who will assist in taking action against those who do not comply with the new safe distancing regulations.
These enforcement officers—which could include police officers, public officers and health officers appointed under the Infectious Diseases Act—will review the cases “carefully”, stressed Mr Gan, to ascertain that there are “reasonable explanations” for their rule-breaking behaviour. Only after a thorough review will action be taken, if any.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam noted that beyond the initial six-month time period, the Minister for Law has the power to extend the bill’s validity till up to one year.
Penalties for flouting the bill
Mr Gan strongly warned individuals to comply with the new measures being set by the Government, adding that authorities will not hold back against meting out penalties against those who flout the rules.
“While the majority of Singaporeans are responsible and will try to comply with the safe distancing measures, there will inevitably be a few individuals who do not treat the situation seriously and blatantly disregard the rules,” Mr Gan said.
“We will not hesitate to take action against such persons and send a strong signal to prevent such behaviour from negating our collective efforts during this crucial circuit breaker to slow down the infection,” he added.
The Infectious Diseases Act, said Mr Gan, dictates the penalties for flouting the new bill—first time offenders will get fined up to S$10,000 or jail time of up to six months, or both. If second or subsequent offences are committed, individuals and businesses can be fined up to S$20,000, jailed for up to one year, or both.
Requisition of Resources Act
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Gan also noted that the bill allows for the option to implement the Requisition of Resources Act (RORA), which permits the “the requisition of land, property or services needed to ramp up our healthcare capacity and public health capabilities”.
The RORA would be used for containing COVID-19 and giving treatment to those affected and at risk, said Mr Gan.
“For instance, if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Singapore, it may become necessary to requisition buildings suitable for conversion into accommodations and care facilities in order to isolate individuals who are suspected or confirmed to be infected, to reduce the risk of further spread, while caring for them,” Mr Gan said.
Mr Gan added that the bill has provisions for the proper safeguards, which he further explained below:
“First, let me emphasise that the minister may make such orders only when the minister is satisfied that the incidence and transmission of COVID-19 constitute a serious threat to public health, and that the provisions of a control order are necessary or expedient to prevent or contain the spread,” said Mr Gan.
Mr Gan also said that after their publication in the Government Gazette, any control orders issued and any changes made to them must be presented to Parliament, and Parliament may pass a resolution voiding any part of it.
Besides publishing it in the Gazette, the minister must also publicly release the control order so that those directly affected by it be properly informed.
“For our enhanced safe distancing measures to work, we need members of the public to take the measures seriously,” said Mr Gan. “Therefore, failure to adhere to the measures without a reasonable justification will constitute an offence. We need to send a strong signal to those who are egregious in flouting the measures, as they are putting not only themselves but also others at risk,” he added.
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