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Oral Reply by Minister for Transport S Iswaran to Parliamentary Question on Changi Airport and COVID-19 Measures

06 Jul 2021 In Parliament

Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Transport
a.     whether there were pandemic plans at Changi Airport before May 2021; 
b.     whether these required passenger and staff segregations based on risk assessments of countries; 
c.     what were the considerations for the mingling of (i) arriving passengers from high-risk and low-risk regions before 15 May (ii) arriving and departing passengers before 13 June and (iii) staff exposed to different risks; 
d.     how does CAAS classify countries as “very high risk” and “high risk” with arrivals from the former being separately escorted; and 
e.     whether an inquiry has been made for such decisions.
Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked the Minister for Transport in respect of flights from high-risk COVID-19 countries
a.     whether the Government will consider setting up a separate stand-alone facility away from the airport terminal buildings for immigration and customs clearance of arriving passengers; and
b.     whether transit passengers from such flights can be sent from such facility to their departing aircraft at a remote bay thus avoiding any sharing of the use of the terminal buildings with other passengers arriving from or departing for other countries.
Ms Yeo Wan Ling asked the Minister for Transport
a.     what are the additional duties or responsibilities that airport workers have had to assume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that allow them to keep Singapore and Singaporeans safe for more than 16 months before the Delta variant came about and since the more transmissive Delta variant arose; and
b.     how are the Government and aviation companies supporting frontline airport staff especially when these staff have had to adjust to enhanced measures at Changi Airport.
Mr Saktiandi Supaat asked the Minister for Transport
a.     in light of the zonal segregation measures at Changi Airport, how will countries be classified based on their evolving COVID-19 situation; 
b.     whether the Ministry will consider dedicating one terminal away from the main arrival terminals for use by arrivals from very high-risk countries; and 
c.     how can the frontline aviation workers safeguard themselves and Singapore given the risk they face daily in keeping the airport open.
Reply by Minister for Transport S Iswaran:
Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to take questions 10, 11, 12 and 13 together.
Systems in Place from Onset
2.     Since the first overseas cases of COVID-19 were reported in December 2019, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) have worked closely with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and other government agencies, to implement measures to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and to protect workers and members of the public at the airport. These measures are reviewed regularly to take into account public health experts’ latest understanding of the virus, and the evolving COVID-19 situation around the world.
3.     In January 2020, Changi Airport put in place temperature and enhanced health screening for arriving travellers, and disallowed entry of short-term visitors from places where cases had been reported.
4.     In March 2020, as the pandemic surged across the world, we took the unprecedented step of closing our borders to all short-term visitors. For returning Singaporeans, PRs and longterm pass holders, in line with MOH’s public health risk assessment, we adopted risk-based differentiated border measures based on their recent travel history. For example, the immigration clearance of passengers from the US and UK, was done at dedicated gate hold rooms. They were then escorted to their assigned SHN Dedicated Facilities (SDFs) to serve their mandatory Stay at Home Notice (SHN).
5.     Similarly, when transfers resumed in June 2020, the transit passengers were escorted from disembarkation to dedicated transfer holding areas (THAs), and subsequently to board the connecting flight.
6.     In January 2021, when mandatory on-arrival COVID-19 tests were introduced, these were done at separate health screening stations for passengers from very high-risk places.
7.     As observed by Ms Yeo Wan Ling, these measures had helped to ensure that for more than 16 months, from January 2020 to May 2021, the aviation community was able to keep our borders open, serving more than six million arriving passengers, while keeping Singapore and Singaporeans safe. In May 2021 however, the Delta variant, which is causing a new wave of infections across the world, breached these defences, resulting in the first airport cluster.
8.     In response, Jewel was immediately closed, and public access to the airport terminals was restricted. Jewel reopened on 14 June 2021, but the airport terminals remain closed to members of the public.
9.     MOH monitors the public health situation overseas and assesses the appropriate risk level, taking into consideration information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), experts and academic networks, as well as Singapore missions overseas. Depending on how the risk profile changes, CAAS and our aviation stakeholders promptly adjust protocols.
10.    In consultation with MOH and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), we further tightened our measures based on our understanding of the Delta variant. Beyond the earlier passenger segregation measures, the airport itself is now segregated into physical zones. Disembarkation piers, toilets, arrival immigration halls, and baggage claim belts, are now separate for passengers from places of different risk.
11.    Changi Airport now processes passengers from very high risk places at dedicated bus gates at Terminal 2, which is currently closed for renovation. These passengers are then transported directly to their SDF. We do not allow transfer passengers from these very high risk places. Changi is also studying the option of using Terminal 4 for such passengers.
Supporting Airport Workers
12.    Our top priority is to keep our airport workers safe, thereby also protecting their families and the wider community. They are at the heart of Changi Airport’s operations and at the frontlines of our border defences. Hence, we have prioritised our aviation workers for vaccination. Today, 95% of frontline aviation workers are fully vaccinated.
13.    From the onset of COVID-19, MOT and CAAS have worked with MOH and NCID to ensure that airport workers don the appropriate level of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and undergo regular testing based on their job function. In response to the Delta variant, we have stepped up the PPE posture for airport workers and implemented more frequent routine testing. Within the higher risk zones, workers are also cohorted and have separate toilet, dining and rest facilities.
14.    Collectively, these measures represent a fundamental shift in operations, imposing further adjustment and stress on our airport workers as they adjust to a very different work flow. For example, workers in the higher-risk zone have to stay within that zone during their mealtimes and break times, which can be socially isolating. We are working closely with union leaders and industry players to help our workers adapt to these new measures.
15.    I am deeply appreciative of the sacrifices made by the airport community to ensure that our borders remain open for essential supplies, and for Singaporeans to return home. The aviation community has set aside $15 million for airport workers’ welfare during this time. I am also very glad for the support from our corporate partners and members of the public, including some CAAS staff who started “Friends for Aviation” to provide encouragement and practical support for our frontline airport workers.
Emerging stronger
16.    Mr Speaker, even as we stay vigilant and adjust to protect ourselves from the evolving virus, we must do our best to safeguard Singapore’s hard earned position as a global air hub. We must adapt to a new normal, where we keep our borders open and safe for passengers, our airport workers, their families and the community. Only then can Changi continue to thrive as a safe aviation hub, connecting Singapore to the world, and the world to Singapore.