Gov’t apologizes for mask shortage

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Gov’t apologizes for mask shortage


People line up at the Happy Department Store in Mok-dong, western Seoul, on Friday as it prepares to sell 60,000 masks supplied by the government. [YONHAP]

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun apologized for the shortage of masks in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak Friday.

This was the first time the prime minister publicly expressed regret after the government admitted its failure to keep masks on the store shelves.

“The government took the measure to sell masks through public organizations, but we couldn’t meet the volume that we first promised,” Chung said in a meeting in Daegu.

To boost domestic supplies, the Trade Ministry slapped an outright ban Friday on the exports of face masks. Earlier it limited exports to 10 percent of total masks production.

Chung also announced the sale of 5 million masks through public entities such as Korea Post, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, Hanaro Mart stores, the state-run Gongyoung Shopping network and Small Businesses Distribution Center.

The government will sell masks at a price of around 1,500 won ($1.24) each, following its decision to sell more than 50 percent of manufacturers’ daily production through public outlets.

From Friday’s supply of 5 million masks, about 2.3 million were allocated to Daegu and the surrounding area of North Gyeongsang, the hardest hit area.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety set a target of distributing 5 million masks through public channels on a daily basis.

Those places were flooded with people on Friday hoping to buy at least five masks, the limit per person.

Supplies sold out in 30 minutes at many locations, according to media reports.

The prime minister vowed to work harder to stabilize the supply.

As for privately-sold masks, the government said it would set up a monitoring system to ensure that the distribution is not skewed.

The government also announced a 20 trillion won stimulus package on Friday, including a supplementary budget of more than 6 trillion won.

Some 4 trillion won will be spent on quarantine measures and financial support for the self-employed and small merchants.

The remaining 16 trillion won will be tax deduction and low-interest loans for small businesses.

Included in the proposal was a plan for the government to support the lowering of rents for small businesses. If a landlord lowers the rent, the government will give a tax deduction equal to half of the cut.

Another tax benefit is an increased tax deduction rate for credit card transactions, expanding the rate from a range of 15 to 40 percent to 30 to 80 percent.

Additional spending is on the cards.

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said that a supplementary budget will be no less than 6.2 trillion won.

“[The Finance Ministry] is discussing the size of the supplementary budget and it won’t be less than 6.2 trillion won, the amount seen during the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS],” he said on Friday.

Hong vowed to push the budget through the National Assembly in March after introducing the bill as early as next week.

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