Masks are needed only by those who are unwell and need to see a doctor, government leaders said yesterday, urging Singaporeans to refrain from hoarding them.
There is sufficient supply of these masks for Singaporeans' needs, but only if these are used responsibly.
Those who are well do not need to don a mask to try to avoid catching a virus. They would be better protected by washing their hands with soap and water regularly.
Government leaders pointed to this in the wake of signs of panic buying of surgical masks, with more than five million masks released to retailers "snapped up in hours" each time a batch of these were put up for sale over the past nine days, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said at a news conference.
Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the spread of the Wuhan virus here, said this had happened despite retailers limiting sales to one box per customer.
"The current rate of consumption of masks in Singapore is not sustainable... especially with the global shortage and the likely export bans," he said.
He added that places like Taiwan have already banned exports of masks, and Singapore must be prepared that more may follow suit.
Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, who was also at the news conference, said that many producers around the world are prioritising China as it is the epicentre of the current situation.
There are also other healthcare needs around the world, such as the bush fires in Australia, he said.
He added: "We cannot assume our supply lines are unconstrained or unaffected by the competition from others who are taking action to secure their own supply lines."
Noting that the vast majority of Singaporeans are remaining calm, Mr Chan said there are nonetheless some here who have taken to hoarding supplies.
Calling such behaviour "selfish" and "not appropriate", he said: "Prepare for the long haul but never, never succumb to short-term fears and panic buying and hoarding behaviours because this will destroy the entire system we have."
The Government is currently sourcing for new mask suppliers and ramping up supplies from traditional sources.
FairPrice has said that it will not tap the national stockpile of masks as it has done in the past, and will instead continue to secure new supplies for national deployment.
Mr Wong noted that the four masks to be given to each household should be sufficient, as more may be made available for families with members who fall ill.
"This is not a set of masks for us to take, open immediately, use it to go to the hawker centre. These masks are to be kept in the household for members of our families who might get ill and need to access medical help," said Mr Chan.
He added: "We must all act in unison and not jeopardise the entire system by doing things that we think might benefit and protect ourselves, to the detriment of everyone else in society."