As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, for most countries, vaccination has come to be viewed as the only viable approach to bringing back a sense of normality. Singapore, which recently experienced another COVID spike, is eager to return to normal, with business travel back on the agenda, and important cultural and business events planned for next year. However, with vaccination rates having plateaued at around 85 percent of the population, health professionals in the city-state have called for mandatory vaccination.
While broadly mandating vaccines has been something Singapore has been unwilling to do, the government did announce in October that people would be barred from their workplaces from January 2022 if they were unvaccinated or did not undergo daily testing. This comes at a time when the Asia-Pacific region is getting serious about ramping up vaccination rates. Earlier, Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, warned unvaccinated residents they risked large fines. In Australia and New Zealand, proof of vaccination is required for some kinds of work, or entry in certain areas.
HOW WILL THE NEW SINGAPORE VACCINE MANDATE WORK?
According to the announced rules, from Jan. 1 next year, only employees who are vaccinated, or have recovered from COVID-19 within 270 days will be able to return to the workplace.
The rules outline that unvaccinated employees will not be allowed in the workplace unless they have had a negative Pre-Event Testing (PET) test, which is valid for 24 hours. Employees who choose to be tested rather than vaccinated must pay for their own testing.
There are exemptions for employees that are medically ineligible for all vaccines under the National Vaccination Programme.
The rules echo Singapore’s vaccination requirements to enter other public spaces, such as shopping malls and dining in restaurants.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR EMPLOYERS?
Just as governments are tasked with clearly communicating COVID-19 rules, for employers, communicating expectations will be important too. Wei Jie Ho, a partner at Singapore Big Four firm WongPartnership, suggests businesses adopt a process requiring employees to inform their employer of vaccination status, and provide proof of their vaccination status prior to being allowed to report to the workplace. “Employees who refuse to do so may be treated as unvaccinated,” says Ho.
She suggests this could take place via email “or perhaps submission of relevant documents through an app/online portal. These processes should also include measures to identify which of their employees are unvaccinated.”
Another approach for employers will be to draft policies and procedures regarding the vaccination requirements. “The policies should include the matters set out in the present workforce vaccination measures (any subsequent amendments), and any other company-specific issues they wish to communicate via the said policies and procedures,” Ho says.
Employers will need to carefully monitor things to ensure that employees are complying with the requirement to update their vaccination status and the policies and procedures issued by their employer, she adds.
Meanwhile, for offices spread across jurisdictions, cohesive regional requirements are unlikely as companies will look to local rules, Ho says.
“Whether such policies and procedures can be utilised in other jurisdictions and other markets would ultimately depend on the applicable regulations and guidelines in place in those jurisdictions and markets,” she notes.
COULD SINGAPORE’S VACCINE MANDATE SERVE AS A MODEL FOR OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA?
While Singapore’s COVID-19 controls are keenly watched, as regions and countries plan to relax social and movement restrictions, at least incrementally, the question of whether other countries will follow the city-state’s lead remains to be seen. Malaysia’s government announced federal civil staff must get vaccinated, and Australia and New Zealand require vaccination across a number of professions.
But Singapore, New Zealand and Australia all have relatively high vaccination rates, and countries without similar prevalence of vaccinations may not be able to adopt similar approach to Singapore, Ho notes.
“The applicability of the Singapore vaccine mandate in other countries in Asia depends on a variety of factors such as the relevant government’s policy/strategy on COVID-19, and the vaccination rate of that particular country,” she says.
“If the vaccination rate of the relevant country is relatively low, Singapore’s new workforce vaccination measures may not be practical,” Ho adds.
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