The Hong Kong government is scrambling to buy more surgical masks as it revealed it only has 12 million left, and the city’s public hospitals only have a month’s supply remaining as the battle against the deadly coronavirus outbreak continues.
An official from the Hospital Authority said global supply chain interruptions and a shortage of raw materials for protective gear had led to problems restocking.
Meanwhile, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury James Lau revealed the government’s supply included 3 million masks it purchased directly, outside of the usual tendering process.
Priority for the masks would be given to health workers, frontline personnel who provided services to the public, and members of the public and staff in quarantine centres.
Lau said his department had contacted more than 400 suppliers in about 20 countries and ordered another 48 million masks, of which 3 million had already been delivered.
University of Hong Kong medical expert Ho Pak-leung has previously estimated that Hong Kong could consume 300 million masks a month during the epidemic.
While Lau hoped the rest would be delivered as scheduled, he admitted that could be a challenge considering the global shortage of masks, and export controls for the items imposed by some countries.
“Against this background, we have to go the extra mile to source masks globally,” he said.
The government had previously put out a global open tender which it hoped would attract more suppliers, however its decision to use the traditional “lowest bid wins” approach drew criticism, with some believing it to be impractical during a time of intense demand.
But Lau said as long as the masks were of a sufficiently high standard the government would bypass the tendering process, and purchase directly as the government “should not give up any opportunity even though the open tender might not be very fruitful”.
With supplies across the city running low, Dr Deacons Yeung Tai-kong, the authority’s cluster services director, revealed an order that arrived this month had not included as many masks as expected.
“We proactively contacted our suppliers, and with the help of the government, part of our orders [of protective gear] have been delivered in February,” he said. “However, there was a delay and a decrease in the amount that arrived.”
As of Saturday, Hong Kong had 26 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death. Globally, the virus has infected nearly 35,000 people, and claimed the lives of almost 750, mostly in China.
As the outbreak has spread, Hong Kong residents have snapped up surgical masks, often braving the cold to queue in lines of thousands to try and get their hands on a limited amount.
Private doctors have also said they were running low, and at least 15 private clinics have had to close, while a doctors’ association warned 400 more could run out in the next two weeks.
Yeung said if the authority was still unable to source protective gear, the government would prioritise medical workers and give them its own stock first.
Meanwhile, the first batch of 60 volunteers from the Correctional Services has joined female inmates at Lo Wu Correctional Institution to help boost production of masks to 90,000 a day.
Commissioner of Correctional Services Woo Ying-ming was among those who joined the production line on Friday, and prisoners have been working around the clock since Monday.
Some 800 staff have signed up for the new initiative in a mission to make 2.5 million masks in a month, against an average of 1.1 million previously.