The heads of two public investigation bodies in Hong Kong are under pressure to probe accusations of unauthorised use and sales of government-produced masks, as the Post found at least 10 departments had allowed staff to take them away from their offices at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the city.
It came following revelations that the supply of “CSI masks” – made by inmates at factories inside prisons for Correctional Services Industries, for use by various government departments – was depleting quickly.
Government officials said at the weekend that only 12 million masks were left in stock, just enough for one month’s usage by all departments.
However, videos and photos showing people selling and giving out CSI-labelled masks have gone viral online over the past two weeks, calling into question how these masks – which were supposed to be used by civil servants only – had reached the market, and prompting calls for the Ombudsman and the Director of Audit to investigate.
An Ombudsman spokeswoman said the office had received about a dozen complaints relating to the use of CSI masks, and would handle them in accordance with established procedures.
Separately, opposition lawmaker Kenneth Leung, deputy chairman of the Legislative Council’s public accounts committee (PAC), wrote to the Director of Audit and called for an investigation into the production cycle of the masks, and whether there were loopholes.
“We should find out from the Correctional Services Department how many stocks are there, the production capacity, which departments are using the most masks,” Leung said. “There could be a weekly update on the production figures provided to the public.”
On behalf of the Director of Audit, an Audit Commission spokesman said issues under investigation were strictly confidential.
The Post spoke to 10 civil servants from various departments and the Government Logistics Department (GLD) to understand how and when the CSI masks had been released into the public domain, and even onto the market.
They said masks had been in ample supply before a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in Hong Kong, with the Correctional Services Department producing 4 million a quarter to be distributed among various government departments, depending on their need.
“We used to put them in an unlocked storage room and one box would be in the office for daily use,” a government executive officer responsible for managing resources across the departments said.
She said each box of masks had a production date and would expire five years after that, and they allowed colleagues to take as many as they wanted, “as no one really needs them”.
Three other executive officers who talked to the Post admitted they never recorded who took away the masks.
“It was just like a pen, or other stationery, that you would not keep a record of,” an officer said.
Six other frontline civil servants, including two working on the police force, and one each at the Transport Department, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, the Housing Department and the Immigration Department, confirmed that they had been able to take away masks until the end of January.
Three of them admitted some colleagues could have taken more than a box.
“Before the Lunar New Year holiday began, we were each given a box of masks, as there were plenty of stocks in the office,” the Housing Department civil servant said.
Showing a sample to the Post reporter, she said: “These are the masks we previously stored in the office, and we could put them on for work.” The box specified that the masks were produced in 2016.
One frontline police officer said he had seen colleagues taking home boxes of masks, as there were no rules regarding their use.
“We used to keep the masks in an open cabinet. So it was normal for colleagues to take them away when they needed them. We seldom asked why,” he said.
“I guess some might have given them to relatives for emergency needs, only very few would dare sell them,” the police officer said.
But things changed rapidly in early February.
An internal email sent to police officers back then mentioned surgical masks would only be provided to an officer if he or she had a medical condition, had frequent contact with members of the public, or needed to go to the quarantine centres. The mail also said officers would have to sign for the masks.
A government source said priority had to be given to frontline workers – including in the police, the Department of Health and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department – while distributing masks.
Another source from the Department of Health said the rules had “changed completely this week”.
“Earlier, we used to keep the masks in our clinics for the use of our staff and patients. You could take as many as you wanted,” the source said.
But they said now an employee working in a clinical area in a public hospital would only have two masks per shift, whereas staff in non-clinical areas would get one mask per shift.
The GLD also emailed various departments asking them to return whatever extra masks and sanitisers they had.
“Our department does not have any stock left, but I need to reserve stock for our colleagues once they return to work,” an executive officer said, referring to the latest work-from-home policy which would end on February 16.
Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said these masks were government property and could not be sold outside.
“The government should investigate the matter to find out whether this was a case of mismanagement and a lack of record-keeping, which allowed civil servants to benefit from these properties,” she said. “The Government Logistics Department should have rules regarding the handling of the masks.”
Former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping also called for a thorough investigation.
“Stealing government-owned property is a crime and the government should investigate it in the public interest,” he added.
On how some of the masks had reached a section of the elderly and a few dancers in a park, a Correctional Services Department spokesman said about 120,000 masks had been sold to non-government organisations last year, such as schools and other social enterprises.
The department declined to name the organisations and the amount sold, but added it had stopped taking orders from these organisations.
The GLD, which has been asked to maintain a stock of about 10 million masks, used to obtain an average of 1.1 million masks a month from the prison authority before the public health crisis. But the number will soon increase to 2.5 million per month due to an increase in production.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Saturday the government had 12 million face masks in stock, which was only enough for one month’s usage by various departments. The government had ordered another 45 million masks but had to wait for delivery.
The Post has asked the Chief Executive’s Office how many masks the city needs for smooth functioning of various departments amid the outbreak. No response was received by press time.
A spokesman for the Independent Commission Against Corruption said the agency would not comment on individual incidents, but it was its statutory duty to investigate all pursuable corruption complaints, in accordance with the law and established procedures.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.