- Six lines capable of producing a total of 10 million masks are expected to go online soon, with other private parties planning lines of their own
- Government help in securing factory space as well as quicker border clearance and certification among logistical help sought
Hong Kong's manufacturers say they will soon have the equipment necessary to produce 10 million medical masks a month from March " four times the government's output " as the city continues to struggle with serious shortages amid the coronavirus outbreak.
But they also are calling for government help that goes beyond the cash subsidies it has already pledged, including help with customs clearance, raw material sourcing and technical support.
A day after the government announced its HK$25 billion (US$3.2 billion) virus-aid package, which includes subsidies to support local mask production, several manufacturers say they need more than just cash.
The Post has learned that at least six production lines capable of producing 10 million masks a month could be up and running within weeks.
While that amount may be dwarfed by Hong Kong's estimated 300 million mask monthly demand, the organisations involved, a major pro-Beijing trade union among them, believe their efforts can make a serious contribution in the battle against the disease now known as Covid-19.
Four of the production lines will be run in the Tai Po industrial estate, where vertical vegetable firm Farm66 co-founder Gordon Tam Chi-ho last Sunday revealed he had agreed to surrender 8,000 square feet of space to a yet-to-be-named third party to produce masks.
The building involved is managed by the Science and Technology Parks Corporation, which is helping the government's bid to boost local mask production.
Speaking to the Post on Saturday, Tam said if the machines arrived in about three weeks, each of the four automated machines could produce about 80,000 to 120,000 masks daily " at least 9,600,000 a month in total.
Tam also said he understood that several private organisations or individuals were setting up more than 10 additional production lines, some of which would be run by non-government organisations with donations from a property developer he would not name.
"No one has mentioned to me if they will apply for the government's subsidies, because they already paid the money," said Tam, who had some advice for interested parties.
"Many people with aspirations (to help) are rich. … Now, they need professional support, such as the cooperation of customs clearance, engineers and technical talents for setting up the machines," he said, adding officials could help source raw materials like filters and fabric.
On Friday, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah said the government would support local private mask production by subsidising each production line with several million dollars, helping them identify suitable "clean" factory spaces, and placing orders to sustain their operations.
The move followed an admission that the city's global procurement excise has failed, with many countries restricting mask exports as well as a planned increase in mask production by prison inmates and retired Correctional Services Department officers from 1.8 million to 2.5 million a month.
Apart from the planned operation in Tai Po, the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions has said it will be running two production lines of its own.
Federation chairman Kingsley Wong Kwok said his organisation would have a half-automated line capable of making 100,000 masks a month in the New Territories East starting this month. Another fully automated line would craft 100,000 every day, though that line will not be operational until next month at the earliest.
Wong estimated the first batch of masks would be offered for free to those in need within two to three weeks.
He said the union would consider accepting the government subsidy though it was not their primary focus. "We are saving lives. Starting production quickly is the most important," he said.
He went on to suggest officials could help in securing raw materials, and agreed a government pledge to buy a certain number of masks could help sustain the businesses in the future.
HKTV mall, meanwhile, an online store that recently announced the acquisition of a mask-making machine from Taiwan, said the firm has yet to learn the details of the new government proposals.
A spokeswoman said subsidies towards securing a space and production costs, along with quicker border clearance and certification would be helpful.
The manager of a Hong Kong-firm that produces medical protective gear on the mainland, meanwhile, told the Post they were hesitant about the government subsidy.
While it was a good thing to have subsidies toward setting up production lines, they said, there were uncertainties about setting up a plant in the city, citing its higher labour costs.
"Short-term subsidies are not enough. Is it really suitable for long term development?," the owner questioned, adding they would need to look into government policies and opportunities in the future.
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