Come next January, employees in Singapore who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be allowed to return to the workplace, according to a Ministry of Manpower advisory released over the weekend. The only exceptions will be for employees who have recovered from a COVID infection within the last 270 days and who therefore may not have been eligible when vaccination became available in the city-state.
Under the new regulations, unvaccinated employees can only enter the workplace if they have a negative Pre-Event Testing result (a COVID-19 test specifically taken for the purpose of screening whether someone has the virus before they are allowed to enter a venue). The test result must be valid for the duration that employees are at the workplace, and the unvaccinated employees have to bear the costs of testing themselves.
The advisory suggests that employers have a free hand in determining how to deploy unvaccinated employees - right down to terminating their employment if the restrictions become too burdensome. The specific wording used by the ministry is:
"If termination of employment is due to employees’ inability to be at the workplace to perform their contracted work, such termination of employment would not be considered as wrongful dismissal." (emphasis added)
This is a significant reversal of the ministry's usual stance on protecting employment. It suggests that the ministry does not consider vaccine refusal to be an employment right, and what's more, it places vaccine refusal on the same footing as misconduct and poor performance, i.e. a reason for valid dismissal as defined by the ministry.
According to the advisory, there are approximately 113,000 unvaccinated employees remaining - about 4 percent of the workforce - and around 14,000 are seniors above the age of 60, who are deemed at exceptionally high risk for severe illness or even death if they contract COVID-19. Notably, only a "small proportion" of these 113,000 employees are medically ineligible for vaccination.
The advisory comes as the number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU mounts. Latest figures from the Ministry of Health indicate that Singapore's free ICU capacity currently hovers around 20-30 percent, and the increasing number of COVID cases comes dangerously close to eating into the minimum free capacity needed to handle daily non-COVID contingencies.