Friday, 8 May 2020

Singaporeans to be given improved reusable masks in third nationwide mask distribution exercise

New cloth masks for all residents as Singapore ramps up local production
Virus cases cross 20,000 mark; but experts say measures helping to control situation
By Calvin Yang, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2020

All residents are set to receive locally produced, reusable cloth masks in a third mask distribution exercise.

The masks, whose production was ramped up recently, will be more comfortable to wear and have better filtration qualities.

Singapore has been building up its supply of new cloth masks and will distribute them to all residents towards the end of the circuit breaker period, which ends on June 1, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

At the same time, local production of surgical masks has been raised since mid-February to meet the needs of all front-line healthcare workers as Singapore digs in for a long battle with the coronavirus.

Yesterday, 6 May, the Republic announced 788 new COVID-19 cases, taking its total past the 20,000 mark.

Sharing Singapore's thinking on its mask supplies, Mr Chan said the possibility of recurring waves of infection cannot be ruled out. This means that the demand for masks could spike again.

He added that the Government had planned to distribute another round of reusable masks, as these are not "reusable for eternity" despite being a sustainable option.

Over the last few weeks, the Government has been working with local manufacturers and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research to improve on the materials used for the reusable masks, said Mr Chan.

But he stressed that "no mask is 100 per cent foolproof".

As with the two previous rounds of distribution, residents can collect the masks from community centres and residents' committee centres. This time, they can also pick them up from vending machines.

Mr Chan said such efforts will allow everyone access to the masks without having to rush for them. At the same time, Singapore has ramped up its local production of surgical masks and tapped diverse sources of mask supplies.

The global demand for masks has risen in recent months. Lockdowns have put the ability of countries to produce and export under stress.

Mr Chan said the local production of surgical masks is designed to meet Singapore's healthcare needs while the Government will continue tapping diverse sources for the needs of the public.

The first made-in-Singapore surgical mask rolled off a production line run by ST Engineering in mid-February.

Mr Chan is confident Singapore would be able to supply local healthcare workers "for quite some time".

In February, agencies and local manufacturers were roped in to produce reusable masks. Mr Chan said: "We needed a complementary strategy that allows our people to have a mask, when they need it, on a more sustainable basis."

The securing of mask supplies comes amid the number of coronavirus cases rising exponentially over the past month.

It took three months after Singapore's first imported case on Jan 23 for coronavirus cases here to touch 10,000 on April 22. But it took just another fortnight for the number to hit 20,000 yesterday.

Experts said the number of cases here could go beyond the 30,000 mark this month. But they agreed containment measures appeared to be helping to control the situation.

Associate Professor Alex Cook, an expert in infectious disease modelling, said the numbers appear to be stabilising of late. "This is what we'd see if we were successfully flattening the curve, case counts rising but in a more controlled manner."

Singapore boosting production of masks since February 2020
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 7 May 2020

Singapore has been ramping up its domestic production of surgical masks since mid-February to meet the needs of healthcare workers.

The decision to quickly establish local production capabilities for surgical masks came about shortly after the coronavirus outbreak started in China, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing revealed yesterday.

"The local production capabilities are designed to make sure our healthcare system is sustainable."

Then, the Government knew there would be a severe global mask shortage and had to urgently conserve the country's stockpile of surgical and N95 masks for its own healthcare workers, said Mr Chan.

It did not help that some earlier arrangements with overseas partners to produce surgical masks could not be realised, as countries imposed export controls on medical supplies.

Singapore took several strategies, including looking for new sources of surgical masks and stockpiling reusable cloth masks.

It decided to make surgical masks locally, even though it was not an easy task. For instance, each layer in a three-ply surgical mask can come from a different supplier.

"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," Mr Chan said, adding that Singapore's local production capabilities then had been for N95 masks.

The first made-in-Singapore surgical mask rolled off a production line run by ST Engineering in mid-February.

Mr Gareth Tang, head of ST Engineering's open innovation lab Innosparks, said staff had to put together the equipment, ensure the supplies arrive and train workers to manufacture the masks. "It was challenging, with the global supply chain disruption. We had to rapidly source from multiple suppliers."

In a Facebook post, Mr Chan said of Singapore's mask production capabilities: "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."

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