Coronavirus: Hong Kong Correctional Services officers decry watchdog’s probe into handling of masks as ‘outrageous’

Sum Lok-kei

Five associations representing more than 8,000 Hong Kong correctional services officers are seeking a meeting with the city’s ombudsman, calling it “outrageous” their department is being investigated by the government watchdog over the handling of masks they produced amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

In an open letter issued by the Correctional Services Department’s (CSD) four workers’ groups and a retirement association, the officers said they were extremely disappointed that an investigation into how some masks had reached the private market was focused solely on the people who made them.

On Thursday, Ombudsman Winnie Chiu Wai-yin announced a probe into the handling of the protective gear by the Correctional Services Department (CSD) and the Government Logistics Department (GLD) amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Hong Kong has been experiencing a shortage of surgical masks amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Twitter

The face coverings, commonly known as CSI masks, are produced by inmates under the supervision of the CSD, then distributed among various government departments for internal use by the GLD.

Amid a dire shortage in Hong Kong last month, questions were raised after the masks surfaced on the private market.

“More than 8,000 members of our five associations found it outrageous that the ombudsman targeted the Correctional Services Department as the Hong Kong government’s only production facility of masks during the epidemic, [rather than] conduct a strategic investigation over the alleged misappropriation of supplies,” the statement said.

The five associations also asked to meet with the ombudsman to find out more about the investigation to ensure they would be fairly treated.

The groups were joined by other critics who said ombudsman should broaden the investigation to include other departments.

Leung Chau-ting, a retired civil servant and chief executive of the Federation of Civil Service, said the fault lay not with the CSD or GLD, but various other government departments.

“It should be a monitoring issue at individual departments,” Leung said on a radio programme on Friday.

Hong Kong authorities under pressure to probe misuse of masks meant for civil servants

“If the stock is not monitored and just left in storage rooms that are accessible to everyone, it will be hard to control where they have gone.”

Leung said there were no guidelines on how office supplies should be stored at government departments and that managers could have overlooked the matter until the outbreak happened.

The Post earlier spoke to 10 civil servants from various departments, with some executive officers saying they allowed their colleagues to take as many masks as they wished, “like stationery”, as the product was in ample supply before the epidemic.

Leung said the ombudsman might have to probe all departments to get to the bottom of it, but conceded that would require a lot of manpower.

Ombudsman Winnie Chiu said on Thursday an investigation would be conducted into the handling of surgical masks by the Correctional Services Department and the Government Logistics Department. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who appeared on the same programme, also said the investigation should cover any government departments that took a large quantity of the CSI masks.

“[The ombudsman] should ask the government departments … on how they distributed the masks among employees and how many each person could have taken,” To said.

He added the government had earlier refused to divulge how many masks each department received.

Hong Kong is facing a shortage of masks, toilet paper and leadership

To said the ombudsman should also question whether the amount of masks each department received was justified.

The Post has contacted the ombudsman’s office seeking comment.

The government said earlier it aimed to boost the number of masks produced under the CSD’s supervision from 1.1 million per month to 2.5 million to combat the spread of the virus.

A small quantity of the masks were also sold to non-governmental organisations, including social welfare bodies and schools.

University of Hong Kong medical expert Ho Pak-leung, meanwhile, estimated the city might need 300 million masks a month to combat the epidemic.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Coronavirus: Hong Kong Correctional Services officers decry watchdog’s probe into handling of masks as ‘outrageous’ first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.