Singapore moves to ensure supply of N95 masks amid high demand

Members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee convened to tackle the worsening haze situation address the media at a press conference on Friday evening. (Yahoo! photo)

Singapore authorities assured on Friday that efforts were being taken to ensure consumers could get masks to protect themselves from the haze, which has reached record levels in the city-state.

Speaking at a press briefing, Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen noted that panic-buying of masks has created an “artificial shortage” that has caused "supply-chain bottlenecks".

He said that NTUC FairPrice would get N95 masks, which protect from most fine particles, by early next week, and that the retail chain would cap the price of the masks and limit the number of masks each person can buy.

Also, the Singapore Armed Forces would be mobilised to distribute one million N95 masks to 200,000 needy households for free, he said, adding that the masks could reach constituencies by Sunday.

The government is also working to help companies with outdoor workers get masks faster, he said.

Ng, however, stressed that healthy people only needed to wear N95 masks for outdoor work if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) went above 300, which has not happened yet.

The 24-hour PSI reading ranged from 171 to 225 at 4pm on Friday, according to the National Environment Agency's website.

The three-hour PSI reading, being widely reported, has reached new all-time highs this week, rising to 401 mid-day on Friday.

Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said the public should not be too preoccupied with the three-hour PSI readings but instead take reference from the 24-hour measurement as a more accurate indicator.

"It is because the health impacts of the air pollutants are actually determined both by the concentration and also the duration of exposure," she said. "So when we measure the health impact and determine the advisory, the 24-hour measure is a better reflection of the total exposure of the individual to the particulate matter."

Health minister Gan Kim Yong also said hospitals are prepared to boost bed capacity to meet the potential demand for bed space, should the situation continue to worsen.

Turning to explain the government's decision not to issue any orders to stop work, Ng said "the haze is all around us".

"(It) is not sensible to have these thresholds now because for some, their home environment is no different from school or work. So if you stop work or close schools they go back to the home environment, the exposure is the same," he explained. "It is not sustainable because it means a mass closure of outdoor businesses, airports, ports and other sectors... the impact to society is very great and there would be knock-on effects, and it is not sensible for us or sustainable to do that."

He added that various ministries who are working with agencies and sectors under them will draw up continuity plans to ensure that exposure to pollutants is reduced.

"This includes schools, VWOs, childcare, construction sites, marine shipyards, so on and so forth," he said.

On the manpower front, Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor said the ministry is urging employers to "remain vigilant (and) exercise flexibility during this critical period".

She reiterated that it is "really not possible" for everything to come to a stop, maintaining that it will "remain vigilant and assess the haze situation on a daily basis and give guidelines as the situation evolves".

The ministers were notably careful to dodge questions about whether or how the guidelines given to employers will be enforced, however, with Ng saying, "I presume stop work means everybody stops work... and it's quite clear what I meant" in his earlier statements about the issue during the press conference.

Government officials also summarised health guidelines for Saturday, 22 June:

Healthy persons:

  • Avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion

  • Wear N95 mask if prolonged and strenuous outdoor activity is unavoidable

Elderly, pregnant women, children:

  • Avoid all outdoor activity

  • Wear N95 mask if prolonged outdoor activity is unavoidable

Persons with chronic medical conditions especially lung or heart disease:

  • Avoid all outdoor activity

  • Wear N95 mask if prolonged outdoor activity is unavoidable

For employers:

  • Provide N95 masks to all employees carrying out outdoor work.

  • Deploy susceptible employees to work indoors, preferably doing work which is not physically strenuous.

With reporting by Jeanette Tan