During the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised against mask-wearing, and this advice was followed by the Singapore government and not because of concerns about a shortage of masks for healthcare workers.
This was clarified by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung to Parliament on Tuesday (21 Mar) in response to Mr Gerald Giam, Workers’ Party MP for Aljunied GRC, who mentioned that Singaporeans saw through the Government’s initial statements about the “real reason” why they were discouraging those who were well from wearing masks.
Mr Giam noted during his parliamentary speech on Singapore’s Covid-19 Response on Monday(20 Mar) that it was because there were insufficient supplies of surgical masks, not because mask-wearing was less effective than hand-washing.
“This is incorrect,” said Minister Ong, “In the initial stages of the pandemic, there was no clear understanding of the characteristics of the COVID-19 virus.”
“We therefore aligned our policy to WHO’s recommendations, which even up to March 2020 maintained that, I quote, “a medical mask is not required for people who are not sick, as there is no evidence of its usefulness in protecting them”.”
He stressed that the risk of shortage of masks for healthcare workers, which would put their lives in danger, was a serious concern, but not the basis of the prevailing public policy on masking.
Mr Ong explained that the Singapore government changed its policy on masks in April 2020, once the evidence on how the virus spreads became clearer.
“Nevertheless, as acknowledged in the White Paper, the issue of masking is one area where our decisions could have been better. But there was no question that during this period, the Government was totally forthright with the people.”
The recent White Paper on Singapore’s response to the pandemic, released on 8 March, reported that the government’s decision to make mask-wearing mandatory for everyone in public, after initially advising against it for healthy individuals, was viewed as a policy U-turn.
Gerald Giam: Government did not heed the four local doctors’ warning
Mr Giam also noted in his speech that four local doctors already issued a warning on 10 February 2020, urging Singaporeans to wear masks always when leaving home.
In response to the four doctors a few days later, the Director of Medical Services at MOH said that “it is not wearing masks that’s most important, it’s hand washing”; The Straits Times ran an article to “educate” the public on questions like, “Is it really true that you do not need to wear a mask if you are not sick? Is hand washing better protection against viruses than a mask?”
“These statements were incongruous and did not seem to be consistent with common sense. People intuitively knew that any layer preventing the spread of droplets would be better than not having one, ” said Mr Giam.
He noted that it took a leaked recording of a Minister at a closed-door meeting in February 2020 to reveal that Singapore was rationing masks to save them for healthcare workers.
On the White Paper stated that “in hindsight…the government could have encouraged Singaporeans to devise their own face masks”, Mr Giam suggested that this was not hindsight — it was what the four doctors advised in the first place, which the Government did not heed.
“It took another three months for the Government to stop discouraging people from wearing masks by “updating the guidance” on 3 April 2020. The result of the about-turn, as acknowledged in the White Paper, was that public trust in the Government was eroded. ”
While concerns over panic buying and hoarding by the public were not unfounded, the Government had stockpiles of surgical masks for healthcare workers.
Mr Giam said the government should have had the power to requisition more masks from the commercial market.
In February 2020, Chan Chun Sing acknowledged that masks supply in Singapore will be insufficient if everyone starts using it
In February 2020, Then-Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing acknowledged that the supply of surgical mask in Singapore would not be enough if everyone in the country started using it.
While speaking at a meeting with local business leaders organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) , Mr Chan pointed out that “surgical mask is not the solution” when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, and that no amount of masks will be adequate if all people in Singapore use it.
Citing the situation in Hong Kong as an example, Mr Chan said that Singapore will soon be in a difficult time like Hong Kong, where there is a lack of mask supplies for medical staff.
Mr Chan said that if Singapore had done what Hong Kong did, where politicians appeared at events wearing masks, the country’s hospital system would have been broken.
This is because it will lead to panic among people, which will result in a severe shortage of masks for medical workers, he explained.
“We won’t have any surgical mask for out medical staff because everyone has used it up, like tissue paper,” he said in a leaked recording from the meeting.