Health Minister Gan Kim Yong admitted that face shields pose COVID-19 virus transmission risks when they are not worn in conjunction with masks but added that these risks were “less of a concern” for the authorities when fewer people were out and about during the circuit breaker period.
Mr Gan made these remarks in Parliament earlier this month, in response to questions raised by Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh.
Pointing out that the Government once allowed people to wear face shields on its own when they are outside before reversing its decision later, Mr Pritam asked what were the medical reasons behind the original decision on face shields and how these reasons changed for the Government to u-turn on its original policy that face shields can be worn in lieu of masks.
Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat stepped up to respond to Mr Pritam but seemed to misunderstand the opposition politician’s question. Seeming to think that Mr Pritam asked who gave the expert advice on face shields instead of Mr Pritam’s actual question on what the advice was, Mr Chee replied:
“I think the MTF has explained why there was a change in the advisory on the use of face shields. This is, as Mr Singh himself alluded to, based on the advice from medical professionals.”
Mr Pritam clarified that he had not asked who gave the advice but had asked what advice was given initially and how this advice changed. With a smile, Mr Chee threw his hands out and said: “Mr Speaker, I’m not a doctor. So, I am not equipped to provide the medical reasons to answer Mr Singh’s question in detail-“
Mr Chee was cut off by Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin who asked Mr Gan if he would like to elaborate. Before he handed the microphone over to Mr Gan, Mr Chee said that the Government’s policies were made to protect everyone’s health and safety, skirting around Mr Pritam’s questions about what the actual expert advice was.
Mr Gan’s response, however, could be more worrisome than Mr Chee’s confusion over the parliamentary question. The Health Minister said:
“Mr Speaker, perhaps I could assist in explaining the rationale behind. As we move into the phase 1 of our opening, we will see increased interaction within the community, among the people. And therefore, we will have to make sure that additional safeguards are put in place.
“And given that face shields do not provide a full coverage of the face and your nose and your mouth, because there are gaps between the shield and your face, therefore it poses certain risks.
“These risks are less of a concern during the circuit breaker period when most people are asked to stay home and therefore we allow face shields to be used. But when we open up the community and the economy, we expect more interaction and therefore we need to enhance the protection where possible.
“Therefore we encourage people to wear a full face mask instead of a face shield.”
Mr Gan seems to be saying that the Government knew that there were COVID-19 transmission risks that could arise when people interact with others while wearing a face shield in lieu of a face mask from the beginning. He seems to be saying that despite the risks, the Government allowed people to wear face shields on its own since the risk of transmission was “less of a concern” during the circuit breaker period.
This explanation is problematic for a number of reasons – first, although social activity was greatly reduced during the circuit breaker, people still left their houses to go get essentials. When the Government allowed the use of face shields in lieu of masks, the people who were using face shields might have thought that they are getting adequate protection when they were, in fact, not.
Some actions by ruling party politicians before the Government reversed its decision on face shields could have also encouraged people to use face shields in lieu of masks and unknowingly be more at risk for COVID-19 transmission.
The Education Minister told parents that their children could wear face shields instead of masks in school and that the schools would distribute face shields to every student. At least one ruling party MP was also spotted wearing a face shield without a mask and distributing face shields to market stallholders, signalling by example that it is safe to wear face shields in lieu of masks when it is not.
Additionally, Mr Gan’s explanation seems to indicate that the Government was aware of the risks but was only concerned enough to reverse the policy on face shields the day before the circuit breaker lifted. This makes it seem like the authorities were not concerned if a few misled people who were improperly wearing face shields were infected – they just did not want greater infection numbers due to improper use of face shields when Singapore reopened.
Mr Gan’s latest explanation on the reasons behind the Government’s original policy and the reasons behind the subsequent u-turn seem to also be at odds with what he said when he first announced the policy reversal.
On 1 June, Mr Gan said that the multi-ministry COVID-19 taskforce had decided that face shields are not as effective as masks in reducing the risk of virus transmission after a policy review. Revealing that a COVID-positive patient could more easily spread the infection to others if he was wearing a face shield, compared to a face mask, he said:
“We know that Covid-19 is spread predominantly through droplets. While face shields may provide some protection, the design of face shields typically leaves a gap between the face and the shield, which means that the wearer could still be depositing droplets. This is unlike masks.”
The Government barred the majority of Singapore residents from wearing face shields in lieu of masks and said that face masks must be the default option when people are out and about.
Mr Gan’s explanation on 1 June seems to suggest that the Government only recently found out about the risks face shields pose and quickly reversed its earlier stance but his response to Mr Pritam in Parliament, just a few days later, seems to suggest that the authorities may have known of the risks all along.
Responding to the Government’s explanation on the public communications on face masks/face shields, Pritam Singh noted the decision made earlier in the week to stop the usage of face shields (with exceptions for certain groups of individuals or settings). He queried how that decision was originally taken to allow for face shields and then the U-turn disallowing face shields except for those certain groups or settings. He asked how the information had changed from the perspective of the health experts the Government had access to, and what were the reasons offered by those experts for that U-turn.Watch Chee Hong Tat and Gan Kim Yong reply below. (5 June 2020)Vid Credit: CNA
Posted by The Workers' Party on Thursday, June 11, 2020