Making mask-wearing mandatory does not give people the green light to go out unnecessarily, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.
They should continue to stay home as much as possible, but don a face mask when they need to go out to buy groceries or other essentials, he said at a media conference.
"Please do not use this mask-wearing requirement now to say, okay I can go out," he said at a virtual briefing. "In fact, you should not go out as much as possible, just stay at home, or do all the right things, practise good hand hygiene and stay at home as much as possible."
He added that the new rule was an escalation of measures after the Government earlier revised its advisory on the use of masks.
The rule was based on the same rationale and scientific studies that led it to change its previous advice that only those who are sick should wear masks. The change came after indications of undetected cases within the community, and findings that people without symptoms or very mild symptoms could spread the virus.
"Same reason, same findings, but a next better step just to make it mandatory and to take the extra protection and precautions, so that anyone going out in any setting wears a mask," he said.
More have been wearing masks in recent days, as it has already been made a requirement in settings such as supermarkets and public transport, said Mr Wong. A national exercise to distribute reusable masks to all residents has just concluded.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a statement yesterday that the requirement extends to all essential workers, regardless of whether they are front-line staff or perform back-office functions.
It noted that medical experts have said that some groups may face difficulties wearing a mask, including children with special needs and young children.
"We will exercise flexibility in enforcement for these groups," it said.
This is in addition to exemptions for those under the age of two and anyone doing strenuous exercise.
MOH said, however, that people must put the mask back on after completing the exercise.
"Mask-wearing is not recommended for young children below the age of two for safety reasons," it added.
Those who flout the rules face a $300 fine for the first offence and a $1,000 fine for subsequent offences, in line with stricter safe distancing measures that include a ban on dining in and keeping a 1m distance from others in public. They may also be charged in court.
Mr Wong said that the requirement to wear masks in public may remain after Singapore's circuit breaker ends on May 4.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong noted that while wearing masks is helpful, personal hygiene remains a "very critical factor in disrupting the transmission chain".
"We want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of transmission," he said.