Two of Hong Kong’s largest consumer retail chains started rationing some food and drug items on Friday to curb panic buying that has plagued the city over the past week amid fears of a citywide lockdown as Covid-19 cases soar.
Supermarket chain ParknShop 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.
“Effective today, ParKnShoP and Watsons Hong Kong will impose purchase restrictions on selected products and medication at all stores,” Watsons said in a statement.
Both ParknShop and Watsons are units of the Hong Kong listed conglomerate CK Hutchison.
On Wednesday, ParknShop announced shorter opening hours, with some of its 200 branches shutting at 3 p.m. – by which time many shops across the Asian financial hub have been stripped of fresh and frozen meat and vegetables in recent days.
Hong Kong officials have repeatedly urged people against panic buying this week, saying supplies were adequate.
Amid public complaints of confused official messaging, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said her government had no plan for a “complete lockdown” while it plots compulsory testing of the city’s 7.4 million residents.
The government would announce details of the plan when finalised, she said.
Authorities reported a new daily record of 56,827 new infections and 144 deaths on Thursday, an exponential rise from about 100 in early February.
The surge in cases and fears of a lockdown have sparked mass departures of people from the city, where authorities are clinging to a “dynamic zero” policy that seeks to eradicate all outbreaks at all costs.
Hong Kong saw a net outflow of more than 71,000 people in February, the most since the beginning of the pandemic, according to government data, compared with 16,879 in December.
On the other hand, bans on flights from nine countries including the United States, Britain and Australia are in place until April 20, leaving some residents who had left temporarily stranded, unable to get back in.
Many restaurants and shops are shuttered, while its Central financial district is eerily quiet and few people are out in normally bustling neighbourhoods.
Highlighting growing public frustration, prominent businessman and government adviser Allan Zeman said on Tuesday the city’s international reputation had been “very damaged” and alarm had been created by the confusing messages.
Hong Kong has recorded about 350,000 cases of Covid since the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and some 1,400 deaths, still far fewer than many other cities.
- Reporting by Twinnie Siu and Donny Kwok