(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 14, 19)
SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is making all-out efforts to improve the supply of face masks as the country's novel coronavirus situation worsens, but public anger is running high over its hastily orchestrated supply scheme.
The country last week approved a plan to limit face mask exports to a maximum of 10 percent of total output and distribute 50 percent through public retail platforms, claiming that this will supply 5 million protective masks to the domestic market daily.
Under the scheme, state-supplied masks are available for purchase at post offices, pharmacies, medical institutions and supermarkets operated by the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, better known as Nonghyup here.
There is a limit of five face masks per person per purchase. Prices of state-supplied masks are around 1,000 won (US$0.80) to 1,500 won each, about one-fourth the price of masks sold on the market.
However, the plan came under fire when people had to form long lines, waiting for hours to get masks at designated stores, with large number of citizens returning home empty-handed after the stores ran out of masks.
"I went to 15 supermarkets and pharmacies on Sunday, but couldn't buy a single mask," a citizen in Daegu said. "So now I go to a supermarket early in the morning to be the first in line."
The government admitted that its scheme is not working well and vowed to improve it.
"We apologize deeply to people regarding mask issues," Kim Gang-lip, the country's vice health minister, said at press briefing on Sunday. "Despite our efforts to utilize public retail platforms, we regret that many people are not satisfied with mask supply. We will consider every possible measure to fix the problem."
President Moon Jae-in also expressed apology over the bungled mask supply scheme during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. He emphasized the "rational and fair" supply of masks so that many people can buy masks.
Of the government's daily supply of 5 million masks, 1 million are distributed to Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province -- the epicenters of the virus outbreak here, where more than 80 percent of the country's novel coronavirus infections have been reported. Some 500,000 are distributed to post offices in rural areas, and 2.4 million masks are supplied to 24,000 pharmacies.
The government originally considered distributing its masks to the country's 43,000 convenience stores but decided against it since its daily supply volume was deemed insufficient.
As South Koreans are struggling to secure face masks, Food and Drug Safety Minister Lee Eui-kyung said on Tuesday that the government will increase the portion of state-supplied masks from the country's total mask output. Currently, half of the country's total mask production is allocated for state-designated retailers.
"We have yet to decide the exact percentage, but it will be higher than 50 percent," Lee said.
Lee added that the government is also preparing a system that prevents people from purchasing masks more than the daily limit following complaints that some customers visit multiple stores to hoard masks.
Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said the country is currently working to increase its daily mask output from 10 million to at least 13 million.
Local mask producers said that they need government incentives to expand their output, citing that their businesses will be at risk if mask demand falls in the future after facility expansion.
The government is expected to roll out additional support measures for mask producers.
President Moon said that the government should support mask producers securing raw materials and buy back mask surpluses if demand drops.
South Korea has been imposing strict regulations on the supply of masks following the novel coronavirus outbreak. South Korea has so far reported more than 5,100 COVID-19 infections since its first virus case on Jan. 20.
Illegal hoarders of face masks can face a prison sentence of up to two years or a maximum fine of 50 million won. Distributors are also obligated to notify authorities if they sell more than 10,000 surgical masks to a single buyer.
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