Hong Kong's franchised bus operators have sought help from the government for masks amid a citywide shortage, but are told they would have to pay back the supply at a later date.
The request came as two bus giants, KMB and Citybus & New World First Bus (NWFB), admitted they were out of masks for drivers. The former employs about 9,000 drivers while the latter has 3,800.
"To ensure our staff are well-equipped with masks to reduce the risks of infection, we have provided each employee with one mask daily," a spokeswoman for Citybus and NWFB said.
Hong Kong has been grappling with the coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19. As of Friday morning the city had recorded 69 cases and two related deaths. Globally, the number of infections rose to more than 76,700, mostly in mainland China, while the death toll stood at more than 2,200.
"As we only have a limited stock, we have borrowed some masks from the government to ensure our staff can maintain services … Now our stock, including those from the government, can last for a month."
The spokeswoman said they promised to return the same amount of new masks to the government once they had fresh stock. "We have been working very hard to source masks through different channels."
A KMB spokeswoman admitted they faced an acute shortage of masks for staff as their shipment had been delayed this month.
"KMB has sought help from the government, which has sent masks to KMB and (sister company) Long Win Bus. But we need to return the same amount at a later time," she said.
As stores citywide run empty on protective gear, the government earlier admitted that its global procurement exercise for masks had failed, with many countries restricting exports.
It was previously announced that inmates and retired correctional services officers would be roped in to help with mask production, to shore up supply from 1.8 million to 2.5 million a month.
Bus drivers face high health risks and they have to handle a lot of passengers every dayKwok Chi-shing, Hong Kong Franchised Bus Employees General Union
Kwok Chi-shing, chairman of Hong Kong Franchised Bus Employees General Union, said earlier this year that drivers were still provided with two masks daily, but this had dwindled to enough stocks for only one a day currently.
"Some masks they got were of low quality. This situation leaves much to be desired. Bus drivers face high health risks and they have to handle a lot of passengers every day in a crowded compartment. They need more protection," he said.
Kwok said returning the same amount of masks to the government was not an appropriate approach. "The government's masks are produced by the Correctional Services Department. But the bus companies are sourcing masks outside. The standards and the insurance coverage may not be the same.
"The government should demand cash payment in exchange for the masks."
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