Coronavirus: free masks from Hong Kong government appear for sale online

Karen Zhang

Masks from the Hong Kong government’s giveaway have been advertised for sale online, the Post has found, leading critics to accuse officials of taking too long to introduce the scheme aimed at fighting Covid-19’s spread.

At least nine individuals have offered the reusable mask – to be handed out for free to every city resident who wants one – for up to HK$200 (US$26) each on Carousell, the online selling platform.

The profiteering has prompted legislators, lawyers and a former government official to question the timing of the handout and raise loophole concerns.

The CuMask+, which gets its name from the chemical symbol for copper, the key filtering component, is produced by a local manufacturer subsidised by the government’s anti-epidemic fund. It can be reused and washed 60 times.

Some of the government-issued masks appearing for sale online. Photo: Handout

The government has pledged to deliver one to every resident in Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.5 million. The total cost of producing the HK$40 masks (US$5) is estimated at about HK$320 million (US$41 million).

By 7pm on Tuesday, more than 3.04 million applicants had applied for the masks online, according to the Innovation and Technology Bureau.

More than 30 masks have been listed on the website at prices ranging between HK$30 and HK$200 each, the analysis revealed.

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A Carousell seller claimed to offer at least six masks at HK$200 each, upon delivery from the government.

Another said a customer had reserved three of his masks at HK$50 each, while a third reported selling the one he had for HK$30.

The Post has contacted the bureau to comment on the masks appearing for sale.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, the former secretary for the civil service, said the attempted sales showed the government was too slow in coming up with a scheme that should have kicked in when the city was in short supply of masks in February and March.

“The government spent hundreds of millions on the reusable masks that people need to wash dozens of times and only have ordinary levels of protection,” Wong said.

“Why would people now wear the reusable masks whose effectiveness they were not sure about when they can just wear disposable surgical masks that can be obtained from the market?”

Wong said although it would take one to two weeks to see if people would actually wear the reusable masks, he thought it highly likely that most people would not.

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“I think it would be the last choice for many people,” Wong said. “That’s why someone sold the mask for HK$30 online.”

He added the government could have spent the money buying disposable surgical masks from local manufacturers and giving them away regularly.

Wong said he believed it was very hard for the government to introduce legislation to stop people selling the masks on. “What the government can do is to urge people not to sell the masks,” he said.

The masks are selling for up to HK$200 a piece on this online marketplace. Photo: Handout

Agreeing there were difficulties in banning their sale, lawmaker Charles Mok, said: “The selling of masks is certainly against the government’s intention of giving the reusable masks for free.

“It might be a loophole [of not restricting it to self-use] but it is very hard to ban.”

Lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung said the government could have inserted a clause that residents were entitled to a mask on the condition they were for self-use only.

“This is a loophole in the context that the government was hoping people could use the masks to protect themselves; some people instead sell them online for profits,” Wong said.

“The additional self-use term would be contractual. It will be a conditional gift from the government and people with integrity would not sell the masks with such a term.

“I think the government lacked consideration when designing the application system.”

He added that if the restriction for self-use was applied, the government could recoup the market price of the masks obtained by those in breach.

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