Hong Kong shops ration food and drugs to curb panic buying amid Covid lockdown fears

Vincent Ni and agencies in Hong Kong

Soaring Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong have led to court services being suspended for a month as the two largest consumer retail chains ration certain items.

The Asian financial hub has recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases for the third consecutive day in what the authorities called a “fifth wave”, overwhelming hospitals and shattering the city’s zero-Covid strategy.

In an attempt to curb panic buying, supermarket chain ParknShop on Friday announced limits of five items per customer on staples such as rice, canned food and toilet paper while pharmacy Watsons put the same limits on medication for pain, fever and colds, Hong Kong media reported.

ParknShop had already announced shorter opening hours earlier in the week, with some of its 200 branches shutting at 3pm – by which time many shops across the Asian financial hub have been stripped of fresh and frozen meat and vegetables in recent days.

ParknShop and Watsons are units of the Hong Kong-listed conglomerate CK Hutchison. Hong Kong officials have repeatedly urged people against panic buying this week, saying supplies were adequate.

The two supermarkets’ decisions came despite calls from Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, for the territory’s 7.5 million residents not to panic over food supplies and daily necessities. On Wednesday, she tried to reassure them that Hong Kong had enough supplies of goods, thanks to Beijing’s assistance.

As case numbers rise, some institutions in Hong Kong also appear to be struggling to function properly. On Friday, the city’s judiciary said it would adjourn most hearings between 7 March and 11 April, after “striking a balance between public health considerations and due administration of justice”.

The judiciary added that it may need to further cut back operations as a result of mandatory virus testing. Last week, Lam’s government said the entire population of Hong Kong would have to undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing in March.

In February, Lam’s administration decided to postpone this month’s chief executive elections to 8 May because, it said, the government’s focus now had to be on the fight against the pandemic.

Cases have been rising across the city. Earlier this week, authorities said about 1,000 prisoners had tested positive and local media reported that judges had also been infected.

Many Hong Kong residents have blamed the authorities for confused messaging. The semi-autonomous Chinese city has officially insisted on a “dynamic zero Covid” strategy – in line with that implemented on the mainland.

On Friday, authorities reported 52,523 new infections. The figure has brought the total to more than 390,000 since the highly transmissible Omicron variant broke through. In the latest wave, 1,341 deaths have been reported, with more than half of the deceased being elderly people living in care homes.

“Hong Kong is facing a serious challenge,” said Siân Griffiths, who chaired Hong Kong government inquiry into Sars in 2003. “The policy of admitting all positive cases to hospital is putting huge pressure on the healthcare system despite the special facilities and use of hotels. Domestic workers face particular problems as the system treats them differently from locals. A major challenge has been to increase vaccination rates amongst the older population.”

Griffiths, who is an emeritus professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, added that Hong Kong’s opening of the border with the mainland, which remains Lam’s government’s top priority, would only happen with a zero-Covid policy. “But this latest wave has added new uncertainty into this planned move,” she said.

The surge in cases and fears over a potential mainland-style lockdown have sparked mass departures of people from the city, where authorities are clinging to a “dynamic zero Covid” policy that seeks to eradicate all outbreaks.

But Lam said her government had no plan for a “complete lockdown”, and the government would announce details of the plan when finalised, she said.

Nevertheless, many restaurants and shops have been shuttered, while the city’s central financial district is eerily quiet and few people are out in normally bustling neighbourhoods.

Highlighting growing public frustration, Allan Zeman, a government adviser, said on Tuesday that Hong Kong’s international reputation had been “very damaged” and alarm had been created by the confusing messages.

With material from Reuters and AFP

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