Haze update: Government moves to address concerns over haze

It spells out game plan to tackle issue, including free masks for needy

The Government yesterday set out to assure a country coming to grips with the haze, as it pledged to give out free one million N95 masks to lower-income households and sketched its game plan if pollution levels rise.

For a start, some 200,000 of the poorest households and the vulnerable will get the free masks, which will be distributed by grassroots groups from tomorrow, with the Singapore Armed Forces helping with the roll-out.

National guidelines will also be spelt out for how businesses and the community should respond if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading rises beyond 300, which has not happened to date.

In the first briefing by the Haze Inter-ministerial Committee, chairman Ng Eng Hen also urged people not to let the haze overwhelm them as the country cannot grind to a halt because of it.

"We need to keep Singapore going even if the haze worsens, but take further steps to alleviate the exposure," he said, stressing that therefore stop-work orders or closure of schools were not sensible or sustainable prescriptions.

His comments came after the grey fog shrouding the island worsened yesterday at one point to another record high, hitting the three-hourly PSI reading of 401 around noon, even as queues formed at pharmacies for the N95 masks. Some shops put up sold-out signs, as tempers frayed.

Giving the assurance that there are enough masks for Singapore's needs, Dr Ng, who is also the Minister for Defence, said panic-buying was creating "supply chain bottlenecks". "We are dealing with this decisively, to push more masks to retail outlets."

Popular outlets, including FairPrice, will be getting more masks. FairPrice will cap the price, but also limit the number a person can buy.

Dr Ng also reiterated that healthy people do not need masks unless they work outdoors when the 24-hour PSI reading is over 300. Indeed, whether a person needs an N95 mask depends on the PSI level, the state of his health and only with prolonged exposure, such as having to work outdoors for hours.

On the free masks, he said the task of distribution will take a few days. "I ask for understanding and cooperation from the public," he said.

People with pre-existing diseases who have difficulty getting such masks can also approach their grassroots organisations, and "we will give it to them", he said.

Turning to guidelines for when the 24-hour PSI reading crosses 300, he said these should not be treated as "panic lines" to enforce work stoppage or school closure. Rather, the focus should be on protecting the vulnerable and limiting their exposure.

The haze pollutants exist "all around us", he noted.

Various ministries and the agencies they work with will draw up continuity plans that will minimise exposure to the pollutants. These include childcare centres, voluntary welfare organisation homes, schools and shipyards.

The Manpower and Trade and Industry ministries are also working with businesses to ensure that they get N95 masks needed for employees who work outdoors.

At the press conference, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that public hospitals can cope with the expected surge of patients caused by the haze.

salma@sph.com.sg

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