Hong Kong to boost face mask stocks with prison labour

Hong Kong has been hit by a shortage of face masks after the new coronavirus outbreak sparked panic buying (AFP Photo/DALE DE LA REY)
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Hong Kong will use to prison labour to help boost dwindling stocks of face masks as the financial hub scrambles to counter the deadly coronavirus outbreak, a top official said Thursday.

Ten people have tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong, a city that was left psychologically scarred by the 2003 SARS outbreak which killed nearly 300 people.

With the coronavirus epidemic worsening in China, panic buying has set in with Hong Kongers forming long queues outside pharmacies to buy rapidly diminishing boxes of face masks.

The shortages have led to growing criticism of the city's leaders, who already have record-low approval ratings after months of often violent pro-democracy protests.

At a press conference on Thursday evening, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung -- the city's de facto deputy leader -- said authorities were pushing to boost supplies, including within prisons.

"The amount of face masks produced by the Correctional Services Department is... around 50,000 per day," Cheung told reporters.

"We will work round-the-clock in hope to increase the production from 1.1 million to 1.8 million per month."

Hong Kong's prisons have a labour programme for inmates, including the production of surgical masks for hospitals and government workers.

Cheung said the government had already bought five million extra masks in January and that a further eight million would be imported in the coming weeks.

"Another 24 million for retail markets are in preparation," he added.

"The government will try to bring them to Hong Kong as soon as possible."