Initial advice against mask-wearing was based on WHO’s stance, and not over worry of a mask shortage

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SINGAPORE - The advice against mask-wearing in the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic was based on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations at the time, and was not due to worries over any mask shortage for healthcare workers.

Explaining this to Parliament on Tuesday, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that at the time, there was no clear understanding of the coronavirus. Until mid-March 2020, the WHO maintained there was “no evidence” that masks were useful in protecting those who were not sick.

“We reviewed and changed our masking policy in April 2020 once the evidence on how the virus spreads became clearer,” said Mr Ong during the parliamentary debate on the White Paper on Singapore’s response to Covid-19.

The White Paper, released on March 8, reported that the Government’s decision to make mask-wearing mandatory in public for everyone, after having earlier advised against it for those who were well, was viewed as a policy U-turn. This “undoubtedly affected public trust and confidence in our handling of the crisis”.

The Government has been “totally forthright” on its reasons for not imposing mask requirements, said Mr Ong in response to Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), who on Monday suggested that the “real reason” those who were well were discouraged from wearing masks was due to an insufficient supply of surgical masks.

Mr Giam said that in February 2020, four doctors here had issued a statement urging everyone to wear masks in public, even when well.

The Workers’ Party MP also asked why Singapore did not appear to have sufficient capacity to manufacture face masks domestically.

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong replied that as masks were rarely worn outside clinical settings before the outbreak of Covid-19, the national stockpile was maintained at a level to meet the needs of the healthcare sector, with companies here makin...

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