The Ombudsman will investigate allegations of “misuse” of government employee surgical masks manufactured by the Correctional Services Department after bundles appeared on the open market.

Ombudsman Winnie Chiu said in a statement on Thursday that the majority of inmate-made masks have been supplied to government departments for daily and contingency use, though a minority have been sold to non-government organisations, such as social welfare organisations and schools.

Carrie Lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam wearing a CSI-manufactured mask at a press conference on March 3. File photo:

Hong Kong has seen dwindling supplies of surgical masks since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese province of Hubei and has since spread to more than 80 countries. Over 95,000 cases of the Covid-19 infection and 3,000 deaths have been reported globally.

Long queues have formed outside pharmacies across the city as residents scrambled to get their hands on the in-demand product. In response, Hong Kong prison inmates were assigned to work round-the-clock to boost the government’s internal mask supplies.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced last month that prisons will increase the production of masks from 1.8 million to 2.5 million per month, with 700,000 going to cleaners employed by the government’s outsourced service contractors.

Last year, Correctional Services supplied an average of 1.1 million masks per month to the Government Logistics Department (CLD), responsible for maintaining and supplying stockpiles.

Chiu said her office had received multiple complaints about CSI-branded masks being made available for purchase online without permission, raising suspicions that staff had resold the items.

“Our office has also received complaints about the issue,” Chiu said. “I have, therefore, decided to probe into the issue by examining whether there are inadequacies in the arrangements of the CSD [Correctional Services Department] and GLD in the production, distribution and stocktaking of CSI masks.”

“Where inadequacies are identified, I will make improvement recommendations to the departments concerned for closing any loopholes at source and avoiding any abuse of CSI masks.”

The Office of The Ombudsman was established in 1989 to enhance government services by investigating complaints and through self-initiated studies. It provides recommendations to the government based on its findings.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.