SINGAPORE — A student who returned to Singapore from London and was issued a stay-home notice (SHN) but went to a food court and clinic, was sentenced to 12 weeks' jail on Monday (30 August).
Esther Tan Ling Ying arrived in Singapore in March last year. The 24-year-old student, who had lost her sense of taste and smell, later tested positive for COVID-19.
In an unprecedented move, the prosecution sought the maximum jail term of six months for Tan on the basis that her conduct, coupled with her circumstances, were of the "most serious and egregious nature".
The harm in this case, noted Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Nicholas Lim, was the possibility of transmission, which distinguished itself from past cases.
"Unlike all the other accused (persons), this accused was a positive case of COVID-19," said DPP Lim, adding that it places Tan at the risk of transmission of the highest level. Tan had removed her mask while eating, as seen on CCTV footage.
Further, Tan had lied to her attending doctor about her travel history, said DPP Lim. If she had not done so, she would have been tested for COVID-19 eight days before she was diagnosed, and fewer people would have been exposed to the transmission, he added.
For her offence under the Infectious Diseases Act, Tan could have been jailed up to six months, and/or fined up to $10,000 on a first offence.
Decided to return after reading advisory
After a trial, Tan was found guilty on 16 August of one count of exposing other persons to the risk of infection by her presence in two public places, Orchis Food Court in Changi Airport Terminal 1, and Clementi Family and Aesthetic Clinic, where she lied about her travel history.
Tan had been studying at a university in London since August 2017 and decided to come home before her course was completed due to a government advisory recommending that all Singaporean students return home.
Before leaving London, she felt unwell but did not see a doctor. Instead, she chose to self-isolate to minimise contact with others until she returned home.
She arrived in Singapore on 23 March last year with a blocked nose. Her sense of taste and smell had not returned.
After alighting, Tan was directed to a holding area and given an SHN from 23 March to 6 April, which she acknowledged. She was also given instructions on the SHN by an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officer and told to go straight home.
However, Tan and her parents went to a T1 food court to eat for about 30 minutes. The family then took the MRT to Clementi MRT station before Tan and her mother went to the Clementi clinic.
At the clinic, Tan did not reveal her full travel history to the doctor. She later called the People’s Association (PA) on 29 March 2020 to say that she had a mild itchiness in her throat, and that she could be a potential carrier of COVID-19. She added that she did not want to put her family members and the community at risk.
She went to a doctor referred to her by the PA and was conveyed by ambulance to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases where she tested positive for COVID-19.
No evidence of anyone getting COVID-19 due to accused: Defence
Arguing against the prosecution's jail term, defence lawyer Tan Cheng Kiong noted that during the period of Tan's return, there was no requirement for her to wear a mask and she was allowed to take public transport home. While Tan had eaten in the food court, she was in a "quiet corner" and there was no evidence that she was exposed to fellow patrons.
At the time of the offences, Tan was not a known case of COVID-19, and the doctor had diagnosed her with a sinus history.
According to the defence, there was no evidence that anyone contracted COVID-19 because of Tan, who had worn a mask on the plane from the UK to Singapore even though she was not required to do so. She had also kept her mask on during the journey home in Singapore, and only took it off while eating and at the clinic.
The defence lawyer urged the court to be "fair". While Tan deserved to be punished for her mistakes, she should not be penalised at the level the prosecution sought, said the lawyer.
Sentencing Tan, District Judge Ng Peng Hong said he took deterrence as one of the main sentencing considerations, but that he was also mindful of Tan’s circumstances.
He noted that Tan’s case was one of earliest of its nature, and did not think it warranted a six-month jail term.
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