SINGAPORE - The five million masks which the Government released to retailers were "snapped up in hours" each time a batch of these they were put up for sale over the past nine days, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said on Thursday (Jan 30).
Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the spread of the Wuhan virus here, said that this had happened despite retailers limiting sales to one box per customer.
Even after the masks were gone, people continued to give feedback that they needed masks but were unable to get any for themselves, Mr Wong said at a press conference.
"The current rate of consumption of masks in Singapore is not sustainable... especially with the global shortage and the likely export bans," he said.
He added that places like Taiwan have already banned exports of masks, and Singapore must be prepared that more may follow suit.
Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, who was also at the press conference, said that many producers around the world are prioritising China as it is the epicentre of the current situation.
There are also other healthcare needs around the world, such as the bushfires in Australia, he said.
He added: "We cannot assume our supply lines are unconstrained or unaffected by the competition from others who are taking action to secure their own supply lines."
Noting that "the vast majority" of Singaporeans are remaining calm, Mr Chan said that there are nonetheless some here who have taken to hoarding supplies.
Calling such behaviour "selfish" and "not appropriate", he said: "Prepare for the long haul but never, never succumb to short-term fears and panic buying and hoarding behaviours, because this will destroy the entire system we have."
The Government is currently sourcing for new mask suppliers and ramping up supplies from traditional sources.
It will also take action against profiteers who have been reselling masks at a higher price.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) will be sending letters to retailers and e-commerce platforms which have been selling masks at high prices, asking for an explanation.
MTI has powers under the Price Control Act to penalise those who set excessive prices on certain goods.
For a first offence, a person convicted under the Act may be fined up to $2,000, jailed up to two years, or both. Corporate bodies may be fined up to $10,000 on a first offence.
Mr Wong said that there will be a sufficient supply of masks in Singapore, provided everyone uses them responsibly.
This means only wearing masks when one is unwell and needs to see a doctor.
If used in this manner, the four masks given to each household should be sufficient, as more may be made available for families with members who fall ill.
"This is not a set of masks for us to take, open immediately, use it to go to the hawker centre. These masks are to be kept in the household for members of our families who might get ill and need to access medical help," said Mr Chan.
He added: "We must all act in unison and not jeopardise the entire system by doing things that we think might benefit and protect ourselves, to the detriment of all else and everyone else in society."
For the latest updates on the Wuhan virus, visit here.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.