SINGAPORE - Singaporeans will receive improved reusable masks soon, with the Government embarking on a third mask distribution exercise towards the end of this circuit breaker period.
The new cloth masks will have higher protective qualities and also be more comfortable to wear for a long period of time, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Wednesday (May 6).
Over the last few weeks, the Government has been working with local manufacturers and A*Star to improve on the materials used for the reusable cloth masks.
Singapore has been building up its supply of these improved reusable masks and will work with the People's Association and Temasek Foundation do a round of distribution to all residents once there is sufficient stock, Mr Chan told reporters in an update on the mask supply strategies Singapore has taken over the last few months.
As with the two previous rounds of distribution, Singaporeans will be able to collect the masks from community centres and residents' committee centres. This time, people will also be able to collect their masks from vending machines.
Mr Chan said these distribution efforts will allow everyone access to the masks without having to rush to collect them. More details on the mask collection will be released later this month.
At the same time, Singapore has been ramping up its domestic production of surgical masks since February. The first made-in-Singapore surgical mask rolled off the production line in mid-February. It has also been looking for new sources of supply for masks.
The global demand for masks has risen in recent months as countries step up their fight against Covid-19. Lockdowns overseas have put the ability of countries to manufacture and export under stress.
Mr Chan said that local production capabilities are designed to meet the needs of the country's healthcare workers. However, he noted that various issues had to be dealt with, including securing raw materials to produce the masks.
"It is not just simply about having the machines and manpower to produce the masks, but also to secure a sustainable supply of raw materials," he explained.
Mr Chan added that he is confident Singapore would be able to supply the local healthcare workers "for quite some time".
Last month (April 6), Mr Chan told Parliament that Singapore is building up its own capacity to produce masks but did not elaborate on the details, except that the Government is working with partners to secure the materials. He also said that Singapore's position was to keep working with other countries to keep supply chains open rather than resort to protectionism.
On Wednesday, he addressed the speculation about Singapore's mask production capabilities, saying: "We were unable to speak about them publicly earlier as we were concerned that our future production lines and raw materials would be interdicted by others, given the critical demand for surgical masks then."
Mr Chan noted that when the coronavirus outbreak started in China, the Government knew that there would be a severe global shortage in surgical masks and had to urgently conserve surgical and N95 masks for the healthcare workers.
While it had earlier established agreements to produce surgical masks with overseas partners, some of those plans could not be realised due to certain restrictions imposed by other countries.
"We decided quickly to then establish our own local production capabilities," he added.
But relying on surgical masks alone might not be a sustainable solution, said Mr Chan, adding that agencies and local manufacturers were roped in to produce reusable cloth masks, which were distributed to every resident last month.
"We need a complementary strategy that allows our people to have a mask , when they need it, on a more sustainable basis."
In a Facebook post, Mr Chan thanked the individuals and organisations that have gone beyond the call of duty to secure essential supplies, adding that the journey over the past few months has been a whole-of-nation effort.
He added that while the country has made some progress in securing the masks required by our population, it has not relaxed the efforts in doing so.
"We cannot rule out the possibility of recurring waves of infection, which means that demand for supplies such as surgical masks may spike again. We will continue to build a healthy stockpile of surgical masks for our population, in particular our front-line workers who require them the most," he said.
"At the same time, we will not stop pushing the boundaries of what is possible in terms of technology to ensure that we overcome the challenges and generate a sustainable stream of supplies."