CE tells officials not to wear masks amid supply shortage

February 05, 2020 11:46
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the WHO advice is that only certain groups of people need to wear face masks, including those feeling unwell, going into crowded places, or visiting high-risk groups. Photo: HKEJ.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said all government officials will stop wearing face masks unless it is necessary as she stressed that supplies must be given to those with greater need.

Speaking to reporters before attending a regular Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Lam admitted the government has been not quite successful in purchasing masks overseas because other governments are also accumulating supplies for the purpose of preventing the novel coronavirus from spreading in their own countries.

As such, Lam said her administration has issued internal guidelines to heads of government departments stating that the top priority is to ensure the supply of surgical masks for workers in healthcare settings or those in contact with patients, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

She said departments should economize on the use of government surgical masks as much as possible.

Lam's remarks came amid a serious shortage of face masks in Hong Kong as concerns grow over the coronavirus outbreak in the mainland and its rapid spread in other parts of the world.

Officials should follow the advice issued by the World Health Organization on Jan. 29 that only certain groups of people need to wear them, including those who are sick, going into crowded places, or visiting high-risk groups, Lam said.

"We look at all officials who are going to meet the media. If they don't match those criteria, they are not allowed to wear masks," she told reporters.

"I actually told them they cannot wear them. And if they are wearing them, they have to take them off", Lam said, adding that the government should take the lead in saving as many face masks as it can and provide them to frontline medical workers and others who need them most.

Asked what will prompt her to fully close the border with the mainland, Lam said that while her administration is studying more stringent measures, it still has to follow the Basic Law, which provides that Hong Kong residents enjoy the freedom to travel and leave the territory.

She said the strategy to deal with a public health issue is constant monitoring and adaptation as the WHO has suggested.

Although Lam did not wear a mask when talking to media, it was noticed that she and the officials accompanying her put on masks when they accepted a petition letter from protesters outside her office.

In a statement, the Chief Executive's Office explained that the government's internal guidelines do not apply to civil servants who wear their own surgical masks and the government has not requested colleagues not to wear them.

In practice, officials will take a risk-based approach and take into account relevant factors in deciding whether to wear surgical masks at public functions, the statement said.

It said that Lam wore a surgical mask while meeting petitioners after taking into account the need to interact with members of the public in close proximity.

Dr. Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) under the Department of Health, urged the public to wash hands more often but said people do not have to wear face masks when walking in open space, climbing mountains, driving alone or being at home.

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