Schools to close today due to haze

The worsening haze has prompted all primary and secondary schools to be closed today as a precaution. This is because air quality could hit hazardous levels, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday evening.

The 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) for the next 24 hours is expected to be in the very unhealthy range (201 to 300). There is a chance air quality may worsen and cross the hazardous 300-point mark, said the National Environment Agency last night.

Kindergartens run by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and special education schools will also be closed, The Straits Times reported.

Other non-MOE kindergartens and childcare centres, however, will remain open, but parents are encouraged to have their kids stay at home.

Junior colleges, centralised institute and post-secondary education institutes, namely the universities, polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education, will remain open.

Classes for these students, as well students in Year 5 and 6 of the Integrated Programme, will continue, as the students in these institutions are older, in accordance with the guidelines from Ministry of Health's (MOH's) haze health advisory.

Parents unable to make alternative arrangements for their children can still send them to school, said Mr Heng in a briefing yesterday on the haze situation. Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say were also at the briefing.

Teachers will be present to supervise students. School-based care centres will remain open as well.

The haze worsened noticeably on Wednesday night and air quality hit very unhealthy levels yesterday, a public holiday. With acrid-smelling smoke blanketing Singapore, the holiday plans for many were dashed. Businesses expecting the holiday crowd were also disappointed.

The 24-hour PSI entered the very unhealthy range (201 to 300) across the island at 6pm yesterday. By 10pm, it was between 223 and 275, possibly one of the highest levels recorded this year. The three-hour PSI, which is averaged over a shorter period and not tied to health advisories, was 314 at 10pm.

Still, some people braved the haze, donning masks along Orchard Road. Others queued in front of stores for the latest iPhones that retail today, Lianhe Wanbao reported.

Dr Balakrishnan said on Facebook that air quality "will worsen further before improving over the weekend". "We cannot exclude it reaching the hazardous level," he said, adding that this is due to a denser haze cloud just south of Singapore that is being blown in by the wind.

There will be no national shutdown of workplaces. Employers, however, must assess the risks involved, especially for those working outdoors, said Mr Lim yesterday.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry has a plan in place to ensure that there is an adequate supply of masks for bulk purchase by companies with employees who need to do strenuous or prolonged outdoor work.

Haze masks will also be distributed today to all eligible Singaporeans and permanent residents at 108 community centres across Singapore from 10am to 10pm.

Those eligible, who will receive two masks each, include holders of MOH's Community Health Assist Scheme Blue cards, Pioneer Generation Card holders, ComCare clients above the age of 62 and those who have been identified with long-term medical issues regardless of age.

Commenting on the haze, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in a Facebook post that Singapore stands ready to assist Indonesia in combating forest fires there, which are reportedly the cause of the haze.

Noting that the Indonesian government said it is taking steps to deal with the problem, he wrote that Singapore hopes those steps "will lead to lasting outcomes, and we are prepared (to) work with Indonesia on this".

"Yet, at the same time, we are hearing some shocking statements made, at senior levels, from Indonesia, with a complete disregard for our people, and their own - PSI levels in parts of Indonesia are at almost 2,000 (PSI above 350 is considered hazardous in Indonesia)," said Mr Shanmugam.

"How is it possible for senior people in government to issue such statements, without any regard for their people, or ours, and without any embarrassment, or sense of responsibility?"

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