Benefit of masks doubt goes to SAR

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 May 2020

Hongkongers have been told to expect to receive free reusable masks within a week or two, with postmen delivering them to the door. If the government lives up to its promise, it will be a welcome improvement for a bureaucracy that has been increasingly synonymous with inefficacy of late.

For now, let's give officials the benefit of the doubt.

At the press unveiling, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her officials donned the masks to present a standard look. Reporters were given the opportunity to try them and gave positive feedback, saying they felt comfortable.

It would be nice if the design could be improved so that it doesn't look - as some have complained - like your are wearing your undies on your face, but the product is of a quality better than most brands of reusables available here.

There are certainly other brands of premium quality in the global market but these are sold at a premium price.

For example, a popular Swedish brand made of top-grade material is being sold in Britain for 60 (HK$575) per mask plus the cost of several filters - that is more than 10 times the price being paid by the SAR government. Yet they are selling out fast and buyers have had to sign up for future shipments.

The imminent distribution of free masks is symbolic of the steps Hong Kong authorities have taken to overcome the odds since the first coronavirus cases broke out here.

Without doubt, it would have been more assuring if the administration was able to roll out the masks during the early frantic days of the outbreak here.

That said, it's better late than never, isn't it?

But it's unfortunate that the project has developed into a controversial issue.

A veil of official secrecy on the identities of the manufacturers has created unwarranted suspicions. The government should have named the two makers from the very beginning to avoid such unnecessary controversy.

The criticisms revolve around two major points: first, there was not a proper tender and, second, alleged collusion.

Did the government breach the rules by not calling tenders for a massive contract worth about HK$800 million?

A senior government official explained that more than 10 manufacturers were approached with a view to developing a type of reusable mask. But the response was lukewarm, so the government tasked the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to take the lead instead of merely acting as coordinator. Apparently, the way events continued to unfold was consequential to the situation.

Recall that, in the early stage of the local outbreak, everyone scrambled to secure masks and many people, old and young, had to queue long hours. Wasn't the government then criticized for being inflexible in asking suppliers to submit tenders in the course of procuring?

So, has there been government-business collusion? Nobody should jump to that conclusion unless there is solid evidence to prove so.

As far as matters stand, the project appears to be sound - with the exception that public relations could have been executed in a smarter manner.

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