Parliament: Private social gatherings of any size no longer allowed under proposed law

SINGAPORE – Social gatherings of any size, in homes or public spaces, will no longer be allowed under a proposed law that will grant the Government various powers to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

This would include having private parties or gatherings with families or friends not living together, at home or in public spaces such as in parks and Housing Board void decks, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (April 7) during the debate on the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill.

The Bill, if passed, would allow the Health Minister to prohibit events and gatherings, or impose conditions on how they are conducted.

Said Mr Gan: “This enables us to better regulate events and gatherings, including those that take place on private properties.”

The authorities had previously advised against holding and participating in social gatherings with more than 10 people. Events such as conferences, concerts and sporting events must be deferred or cancelled regardless of size.

Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, said the Bill provides the legal basis to enforce enhanced safe distancing measures, and are temporary measures specific to the outbreak that Singapore is facing.

The proposed law would also allow the Government to requisition land, property or services needed to ramp up healthcare capacity and public health capabilities under the Requisition of Resources Act that was first passed in 1985.

Mr Gan told the House that if the number of Covid-19 cases continue to rise in Singapore, it may become necessary to requisition buildings that can be converted into accommodations and care facilities.

He said: “I am very grateful that today, many hotel and building operators have voluntarily stepped forward in this difficult period to work with the Government to support the national Covid-19 efforts.

“However, in a crisis like this, time is often of the essence and we cannot rely solely on commercial negotiation or the goodwill of these resource owners. We will need to move fast.”

He added that the Government would exercise these powers judiciously, and work closely with affected stakeholders.

Under the Bill, the health minister would also have the power to close premises such as workplaces, schools, recreational facilities and places of worship, to minimise interactions and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

It allows the minister to set requirements for premises in key economic sectors or essential services that are allowed to continue operating, including having food establishments open only for take-away or delivery, and not allowing customers to dine in.

The minister would also be able to restrict the movement and interactions of individuals at their place of residence or other places, as well as their use of common areas like void decks, and shared facilities in HDB estates and private condominiums.

Mr Gan said: “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.”

These include loitering and mingling in groups in public areas instead of staying at home, or refusing to adhere to safe distancing measures at food establishments or supermarkets, he said.

He added: “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.”

ENFORCEMENT AND PENALTIES

The Bill empowers the minister or any authorised public officer to appoint enforcement officers to take action against individuals, business owners or entities that flout the rules.

The enforcement officers will include police officers, public officers and health officers appointed under the Infectious Diseases Act.

While a strong signal needs to be sent to those who are egregious in flouting the measures, Mr Gan said enforcement officers will look at the facts of the cases carefully, including whether there were reasonable explanations for non-compliance.

Penalties are aligned with those under the Infectious Diseases Act. First-time offenders can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed up to six months.

For subsequent offences, the penalty is a fine of up to $20,000, up to 12 months’ jail, or both.

SAFEGUARDS

Mr Gan emphasised that the health minister may make such orders only when he is satisfied that the spread of Covid-19 constitutes a serious threat to public health, and that the control order was necessary to prevent or contain it.

Second, a control order and any amendment must be presented to Parliament as soon as possible after its publication in the Gazette.

The House may pass a resolution annulling the control order, or any part or amendment of it.

Third, the minister must publish the control order so that those affected are aware of it, in addition to publishing it in the Gazette.

The minister noted that the latest “circuit breaker” measures offer an important opportunity to slow the Covid-19 infection significantly.

“The key message is simply this: ‘Stay home. Go out only for essential activities. Avoid close contact with people. If you can’t, wear a mask to protect others and to protect yourself.’ Everyone must play our part for the circuit breaker to be effective,” he stressed.

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