Frontline ICA officers could wear masks if they need to: Home Affairs Minister

Frontline ICA officers could wear masks if they need to: Home Affairs Minister

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Sat (1 Feb) denied allegations that frontline Immigration and Checkpoint Authority (ICA) officers had been instructed not to wear face masks while on duty, in light of the Wuhan novel coronavirus outbreak

Mr Shanmugam told reporters on a visit to Woodlands Checkpoint on Sat that ICA officers working at Customs and customer service counters the immigration checkpoints have been given the same protocols as other frontline officers from other government departments.

“I think there has been a misunderstanding. If you are not well, then you shouldn’t even be there,” he said, noting that officers on duty could wear face masks if they felt the need to do so.

Mr Shanmugam said that practicing good personal hygiene is more crucial, as there is a high risk of being infected with the virus through touching contaminated surfaces.

“The riskiest part of the body right now is your hands, many of us touch things and bring it to our face, that’s the possibility of the virus going in,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam in a Facebook post on Sat also said that ICA officers at Woodlands Checkpoint, who “have been working round the clock”, have carried out their duties “exceptionally well during this challenging period”.

While users on his Facebook post applauded his appreciation for the work of ICA officers at the checkpoints, they also questioned why the officers are still not wearing face masks, given the possible high risk of exposure to tourists who may carry the virus but are asymptomatic at the time of screening.

Frontline immigration officers allegedly “not allowed” to wear face masks while on duty, online users claim

Claims regarding frontline staff at immigration checkpoints not being permitted to wear face masks while on duty circulated online late last month, as seen in screenshots of Facebook posts dated 30 Jan below, one made by a user claiming to be a former ICA officer and another by an airport staff member.

Other claims suggested that the frontline immigration officers were not instructed to wear masks while screening visitors over at the counters to portray a positive image to visitors entering the country, particularly in the midst of rising xenophobic sentiments — Sinophobic in particular — against visitors from mainland China following the outbreak.

In neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, all frontline immigration officers are instructed to wear face masks.

The Thaiger reported at the end of last month that immigration officers in Thailand at all airports nationwide are required to wear masks and gloves “as they must handle many passports and frequently converse with passengers”.

Earlier on 28 Jan, TOC sent a query to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) regarding why frontline officers — barring those tasked to do health checks — at the immigration checkpoints did not put on face masks, as seen below.

However, we did not receive any reply from MHA regarding the claims.

MHA on 31 Jan, however, told Mothership that frontline ICA officers are not required to wear surgical masks because “the risk of infection from such transient contact is assessed to be low”.

“The health authorities generally define the level of close contact that is necessary for virus transmission as an exposure of at least 30 minutes within two metres of an infected person,” MHA added.

However, the Ministry added that officers who are unwell and have a fever, cough or runny nose should put on a surgical mask, and seek medical attention promptly.

“ICA officers who are assigned to perform clearance duties on travellers with respiratory symptoms (e.g. fever, cough, shortness of breath) will don surgical masks and disposable gloves,” the Ministry added.

Health experts in Singapore earlier told The Straits Times that there is no need for healthy people to wear the masks, as currently there is no community spread of the Wuhan virus in Singapore.

In the same vein, also reminded the public on Sat that the masks “are for those who are sick”, and that people who are in healthy condition do not need to wear a mask.

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