Singapore's stockpile of nine million N95 masks was not readily available in the shops last month because they were meant for an infectious-disease epidemic, said Dr Ng Eng Hen in Parliament.
The masks, which filter out small particles, were not originally for the public. They were kept by the Government to prevent the spread of disease to health-care workers, he explained.
"That stockpile is quite important in case, touch wood, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (a virus similar to Sars) viruses come here," he said yesterday. "So the way they were stored... the assumption was for a particular rate of use."
He was responding to MPs' concerns that there were delays and bottlenecks getting N95 masks to the public during last month's haze episode - a major concern which saw queries from six legislators.
Dr Ng, who is Defence Minister and chairman of an inter-ministerial haze committee, explained that retailers' distribution channels could not cope with the spike in demand. "There are few systems where one day to the next, your demand is one day, 5,000; the next, one million," he said.
But despite the crunch, the Government decided to provide for the needy, he added, distributing about a million masks to 200,000 households.
"We didn't know how long the haze would last," he said in response to a question from Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC).
"There wasn't really a shortage, but out of concern that the poor and vulnerable would not be able to get (masks), we met and decided that ministries would push the masks out."
The Government is now rebuilding its supplies of N95 masks, added Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.
But, he stressed, the masks may not fit everyone. Responding to Workers' Party MP Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) on the options for children, Mr Gan explained that there are no N95 masks suitable for small children.
"MOH will continue to explore the different masks available in the market to see which of them will be suitable for use by our children," he said.
The hoarding of the precious N95 last month also drew the attention of MPs. Mr Desmond Lee (Jurong GRC) asked if the Competition Act could include provisions to prevent essential items from being hoarded.
Acting Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong replied that the Control of Essential Supplies Act, last used in the 1980s for petroleum, was still in place to provide for control and rationing of necessities in a crisis. But the Act was not invoked this time as the spike in PSI was for only a short time.
Households could also buy their own N95 masks even after the haze subsided, he added, to have their own small stockpiles so the Government would not have to distribute many masks in a brief period.