SINGAPORE: A total of 1,500 Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel are packing 5.2 million surgical masks for distribution to the public, as Singapore continues its fight against the Wuhan coronavirus.
The round-the-clock packing operation at the SAFTI Military Institute started on Thursday (Jan 30) evening after the multi-ministerial task force announced that each Singapore household will receive a pack of four masks.
The SAF will use large vans and operational utility vehicles to deliver the masks to 89 Residents' Committee centres and Community Centres, after which the People's Association (PA) will distribute them to the public.
The SAF personnel are working eight-hour shifts, with each shift expected to pack 200,000 masks. They will aim to deliver the first batch of masks on Friday evening and finish the operation by Saturday evening.
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Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the SAF is “very aware” that all agencies in Singapore have to “lean forward” to do its part in tackling the Wuhan coronavirus.
“Every new biological outbreak can be very serious if we are not quick enough to take up the right measures,” he told reporters at the packing area on Friday.
This comes as Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Thursday that there is a sufficient supply of masks in Singapore if managed properly, amid concerns over a lack of availability at retailers islandwide.
Many people in Singapore are donning surgical masks as a form of protection against the coronavirus, although experts have cautioned it could create a "false sense of security" if not used properly.
On Friday, 450 servicemen wearing gloves, masks and hair nets sat at rows of tables in a large hall – chosen for its sterile environment and proximity to a transport line. Servicemen who leave the hall have to sanitise their hands before returning to the tables.
They removed masks from a small box and placed four of them in a Ziploc bag. These then go into a larger carton that can contain 400 of such bags. Each van can carry up to 14,000 bags.
Other servicemen help to pack the large cartons and move them to vehicles waiting outside. After this 8am shift ends at 4pm, another will take over.
The SAF personnel include non-uniformed staff as well as full-time national servicemen and regulars from the Combat Service Support Command.
Dr Ng said the servicemen took a few hours after being activated to prepare the entire set-up, including getting materials like masks, ziploc bags and packing boxes from various agencies.
Nevertheless, he said the servicemen were “on track” with their progress, adding that they were in good spirits.
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“You know that when you do this, you’re doing it to protect your family and fellow Singaporeans, and you’re very proud of it,” he stated.
It is not the first time the SAF is conducting such an operation – during the haze crisis in 2013, it packed and distributed more than 1 million masks to the public through the PA.
CONTACT TRACING, TEMPERATURE SCREENING
The SAF is also helping out in other areas of the battle against the Wuhan coronavirus.
Dr Ng said that as part of contact tracing, SAF personnel are making a hundred calls a day to people in Singapore who have travelled to Hubei province recently to ask about their condition.
They are also manning thermal imagery equipment at airports and will inform airport staff if they detect symptomatic passengers.
The minister stressed that these SAF personnel are not in direct contact with passengers, adding that they were not trained to do so.
Dr Ng had also said in a Facebook post on Thursday that the SAF is using its premises for quarantine cases.
On Friday, he said the SAF is “careful” to ensure it maintains operational readiness even as it deploys resources to contain the Wuhan coronavirus.
“Even though it’s a national effort, we want to make sure that the SAF keeps its eye on its primary responsibility,” he said.
“We will not compromise security, even though this is important, and that is why we mobilised the Combat Service Support Command, whereas other operational units are still on tasking.”
When asked if there are SAF servicemen currently in China, Dr Ng said the SAF has instructed personnel to defer non-essential travel to the country, adding that there were also no upcoming bilateral exercises with China.
"Even if (the trip to China is) important, they have to get clearance," he added.
Editor's note: The capacity of the vans mentioned in this article has been changed after MINDEF corrected the information originally provided.