Multi-pronged approach in enhancing virus prevention and safeguarding health
2 February 2020
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus infection has entered a critical stage. Adequate and sustainable provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) is indispensable to the prevention and control of the disease, and indeed vital to the safety of frontline healthcare workers. The current global shortage of surgical masks has caused panic-buying in Hong Kong for days. In view of public concern, the Hong Kong SAR Government has adopted a multi-pronged approach to proactively step up local production and global procurement, with a view to increasing and stablising mask supply. We will exercise the greatest flexibility and show the utmost determination in the process, and we ask for understanding from the public.
During the Lunar New Year holidays, the Government held high-level meetings involving various departments to make emergency arrangements for sourcing PPE including surgical masks. The salient points are set out below:
- The Government has been making active moves to source surgical masks around the world. As of last Thursday, we contacted a total of 140 suppliers from over 10 countries. As of now, the number of suppliers contacted has increased to more than 220. So far, the Government has procured about 5 million surgical masks, which have been gradually delivered to Hong Kong since last week. We are striving to order more.
- The economic and trade offices outside Hong Kong are making efforts to identify suppliers of surgical masks in their respective regions.
- So far, the Government has facilitated the delivery of nearly 8 million surgical masks to Hong Kong in collaboration with the Mainland authorities. Taking into account another 24 million surgical masks separately arranged, a total of 32 million surgical masks will gradually be delivered to Hong Kong for retail sale in the market.
- The Government has enhanced co-operation with the Mainland Customs to follow up on the clearance of surgical mask shipments with a view to speeding up their delivery to Hong Kong.
- The mask production line of the Correctional Services Department will operate 24 hours a day, increasing its output from 1.1 million masks to 1.8 million masks per month. Moreover, the Department will set up an additional mask workshop in Lo Wu Correctional Institution as soon as possible to further increase the output and thus the supply of masks.
- The Government has contacted some local innovation and technology companies with a view to producing an additional 1.6 million masks of higher specifications per month. We are also facilitating Hong Kong manufacturers based outside the territory to relocate their production lines to Hong Kong in the short term.
- The Customs and Excise Department is conducting a large-scale territory-wide special operation in which inspections are being carried out in various districts on surgical masks available in the market to ensure their compliance with statutory specifications so as to protect the safety and rights of the public.
In the past week, some people from the industrial, commercial and political sectors contacted us to provide various channels for the global sourcing of masks. It is indeed encouraging that many people have expressed their intention to set up or restart mask production lines in Hong Kong. The Government will proactively facilitate the implementation of such plans so that Hong Kong will have a steady local supply of masks in the long run.
The health of our citizens always comes first. Therefore we strive to address public concern over the supply of masks. We have reminded the trade time and again that the masks should be made available in the market immediately upon their successive delivery to Hong Kong. No hoarding to raise prices should be done lest the balance between demand and supply will be upset, causing more panic across the city.
Social distancing is an effective measure for the control of disease in the short term. Two days ago (31 January), the Chief Executive announced the extension/implementation of an array of measures to control the spread of the disease. The salient points of these measures are as follows:
- Increasing supply of surgical masks through a multi-pronged approach
The Government will continue to spare no effort in sourcing masks globally, increasing local production, liaising with mask suppliers in the Mainland and seeking assistance from relevant authorities to facilitate the entry of such supplies into Hong Kong, with a view to meeting the needs of healthcare workers and other personnel providing public services, as well as stabilising the market supply. The Government also appeals to private and charitable organisations to donate surgical masks to the underprivileged, and will assist in the co-ordination work as far as possible.
- Extending suspension of classes and special work arrangements for civil servants
All secondary schools, primary schools, kindergartens, child care centres and special schools will continue to suspend classes. The date of class resumption will not be before 2 March and will be decided later. Special arrangements for government staff to work from home will be extended until 9 February, and the Government will review the situation later. Meanwhile, the provision of emergency and essential public services as well as basic and limited public services will continue. On the detailed arrangements of class suspension and provision of public services, the Education Bureau and relevant government departments will make announcements as soon as possible. The Government appeals to employers to continue to make flexible work arrangements for employees in accordance with their operational needs.
- Hong Kong residents returning from the Mainland
All Hong Kong residents who have visited Hubei Province in the past 14 days prior to their entry to Hong Kong should approach Port Health Division staff of the Department of Health for assessment upon their arrival. Even those who are asymptomatic will be arranged to stay in quarantine centres for surveillance. The Government also appeals to Hong Kong residents returning from other places on the Mainland to stay home for 14 days upon their return as far as the circumstances permit. Those who need to go out during the period should wear a surgical mask.
- Hubei residents in Hong Kong
Hubei residents have been restricted from entering Hong Kong since 27 January. For those Hubei residents who have already entered Hong Kong, they are only allowed to stay in Hong Kong for seven days in general, and it is believed that the number of these people in Hong Kong will gradually decrease. As at 5 p.m. on 1 February, the Immigration Department conducted inspections at 715 hotels and guesthouses and found 55 travellers from Hubei. Among them, 31 left Hong Kong on their own. The Department of Health will arrange for the remaining travellers to stay in quarantine centres or, for asymptomatic travellers, to leave Hong Kong as soon as possible.
- Enhancing exit screening and health declaration
Starting from last night (1 February), the Hong Kong International Airport has implemented body temperature checks for both departing and transit passengers. No boarding will be allowed for passengers with fever. On land-based control points, the Government has imposed a requirement for health declaration at Lo Wu Control Point and the Shenzhen Bay Port since yesterday and will extend it to other control points gradually.
- All-out efforts to support front-line healthcare staff
The Government fully supports front-line healthcare staff. Although the supply of surgical masks remains tight, the Government will give priority to their needs. Since yesterday, the seven hospital clusters of the Hospital Authority have been able to conduct rapid virus testing, which can help relieve the work pressure of healthcare staff.
Earlier, the Government has implemented a host of measures to reduce the flow of people between the Mainland and Hong Kong, which have significantly reduced the number of Mainland visitors coming to Hong Kong. The number of Mainland visitors who arrived in Hong Kong via control points (except the airport) on 30 January accounted for only 9.7% of the total number of passengers, and the number has dropped 91% compared to the figure two weeks ago. It is believed that the number will further decrease. The Government will continue to liaise with the Mainland as appropriate to explore further consolidation and tighten the management of the control points.
The Government will continue to prepare more quarantine centre facilities, but great difficulties are encountered in identifying suitable sites. If a large number of close contacts have to be quarantined within a short period of time, the Government may need to impose home isolation on the individuals concerned. The Government has completed a study on the use of electronic tracking bracelets and positioning technology to help with surveillance. The relevant items are available starting from this week.
On assisting Hong Kong residents in Hubei, officers of the Wuhan Economic and Trade Office will render appropriate support to them. As of 30 January, the Government received about 600 requests for assistance in relation to the novel coronavirus, involving about 1 300 Hong Kong residents located in over 30 cities in Hubei. The Government will keep close contact with the Mainland authorities to explore practical ways for these people to return to Hong Kong.
Today is Sunday, a day off for many foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) who may hang out with friends. To safeguard their personal health and reduce the risk of disease spread in the community, the Government earlier appealed to them to stay home on their rest day as far as practicable. I suggest that employers should explain to FDHs the current situation for better understanding and remind them to observe personal hygiene. If they need to go out, they are advised to wear a mask and maintain social distance.
On the other hand, some members of the public have been rushing to buy food in recent days. I must emphasise that the supply of staple food in Hong Kong is sufficient and there is really no cause for alarm. The Government has learnt from supermarkets, retailers and wholesalers that goods replenishment at some retail outlets had lagged behind owing to reduced manpower during the Lunar New Year holidays. But they would replenish the shelves as soon as possible to ensure the smooth supply of food.
My highest salute goes to frontline healthcare and emergency services staff for their fearlessness, determination and hard work. I appreciate their worries and the pressure they are under. In this critical moment, I believe it is the earnest hope of the general public that healthcare staff will not easily go on strike but will stand fast at their posts and work in unison to fight the disease, while upholding professionalism and the belief of caring about their patients like parents caring about their children. The Government will fully support frontline healthcare staff, providing them with sufficient protective equipment and addressing the pressing needs they may have for staying out from home.
The support from society as a whole is indispensable to the success of fighting the disease. I appeal to the community to join hands in rising to the challenge in such a difficult time.