The availability of masks shouldn’t be taken for granted, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing last Thursday (21 May), stressing that the country has to continue to diversify its sources of masks and build up a stockpile to prevent potential disruption to the supply lines.
“I just want to emphasise this point: Nobody knows how long and how widespread this (Covid-19) pandemic will be. And one should never be complacent about any supply lines, including masks. Not just for masks… for food, medical supplies and so forth,” he said in response to a media query about the country’s mask supply when at the Pek Kio Community Centre.
There, Mr Chan announced that six million reusable masks have been prepared for distribution nationwide to all residents. The masks—which have a bacterial filtration efficiency rate of at least 95 percent even after 30 washes—will be made available for collection from 26 May at all 109 community clubs and 661 residents’ committee centres.
Mr Chan noted that the country’s stockpile of masks, which includes surgical masks, reusable masks, and N95 masks, has “progressed”.
When the pandemic first started to develop, there was a mad scramble for masks in Singapore as people started panic-buying and hoarding supplies, which then sparked concerns over the country’s stockpile of masks.
Mr Chan, at the time, had urged Singaporeans to stay calm, adding that it was irresponsible to resort to panic buying and it would lead to retailers jacking up the prices of goods as it sees the sharp uptick in demand.
He also labelled panic-buyers as “irresponsible” and “disgraceful” for hoarding items like masks and toilet paper.
To ease concerns over empty shelves, the government released 5 million masks from the country’s stockpile to retailers in late January. However, they were swept up in mere hours. People were then left worried once again.
In February, the government then distributed four masks to each of the 1.37 million households in Singapore. This was back when the government’s policy on mask-wearing was that only those who felt unwell should wear masks.
At the same time, engineering firm Singapore Technologies Engineering had moved its production line of surgical masks from Taiwan to Singapore in early mid-February. The company then starting manufacturing medical-grade surgical masks locally to add to local supplies.
In April, Mr Chan has said in Parliament that Singapore is also in the process of bolstering its mask capacity, though he did not specify details actual figures.
“We will not share that exact number for security reasons, because it affects how we negotiate with people for future supply,” said Mr Chan on Thursday. “Some people may not want to sell to you, some people may want… so it depends.”
Mr Chan added that N95 masks are already being made locally for healthcare workers. He also noted that the country has built up a stockpile and is now “quite comfortable” in terms of masks supply for both the private and public sector.
He went on to say that the availability of surgical masks for non-healthcare has stabilised in pharmacies, saying that the stockpile for this has also been built up.
Right now, the country is also making an effort to build up stock of reusable masks like the one that will be distributed next week. He noted that the public should be using these instead to conserve surgical masks for healthcare workers. Mr Chan added that other countries are creating a stockpile of these masks as well.
“Other countries have done the same thing, to go after the same manufacturers (of these masks),” he said, though he didn’t elaborate on the countries.
Even so, Mr Chan emphasised that the government is not “overconfident” regarding the national stockpile, saying that he checks on the supply lines every day to check on supply and demand issues that may crop up a few months down the line.
“We have projected our demand and then we will make sure that we allow the supply to come in both domestically to fulfil it and also from overseas sourcing.”