Anxious Hongkongers scrambled on Thursday to stock up on essentials over fears that border restrictions to contain the coronavirus would choke off supplies, while the government provided scant details on the mandatory quarantine taking effect in less than 36 hours on arrivals from mainland China.
As long queues formed at shops all over the city for the second straight day and people jostled to grab toilet and tissue paper, as well as rice and perishables, food suppliers sought to assure the public there was no need for hoarding.
“There is absolutely no need to panic buy. We have always worked to ensure a stable supply of food and all these years, throughout all sorts of big events, we have never had a shortage,” Thomas Ng Wing-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Council, told a press conference.
The fears, fed by online rumours, mounted when the government announced on Wednesday it would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from mainland China, sparking concerns that supplies would also be held up.
But while the government said it would reveal more on the quarantine measures on Thursday, the day ended with no information forthcoming, as sources told the Post that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was still locked in meetings over facilities and details on implementation.
Even as they gave assurances, representatives of rice, pork, egg, seafood, poultry and fruit-and-vegetable merchants urged the government to exempt cross-border truck drivers from the 14-day quarantine set to kick in on Saturday, to avert any delays in supplies reaching the city.
Separately, amid a week-long strike by public hospital workers now into its fourth day, the Hospital Authority said about 5,000 employees, including some 220 doctors and 3,000 nurses, had not reported for duty.
A meeting between the authority and representatives from strike organiser the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance ended in mixed results as both sides gave different accounts of the talks.
By Thursday, more than 28,200 people had been diagnosed with the virus worldwide, mostly on the mainland, with the death toll at more than 560.
Locally, there were three more cases of infection, raising the total to 24, as leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung declared the city to be in the throes of a community outbreak.
One case was a 55-year-old Hong Kong woman, the wife of a man confirmed as infected a day earlier, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases branch of the Centre for Health Protection, told a press conference.
The infected couple were in Japan between January 28 and February 1. The two other cases did not travel in the 14 days before they fell ill.
One is a 65-year-old woman admitted to Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin in a serious condition. A resident of Shek Mun Estate in the district, she had underlying illnesses and developed fever and cough on January 28. She visited a private doctor on January 29 and February 1, and was sent to hospital on February 5.
The other case is a 63-year-old woman, who started to cough on January 26 and visited a private doctor on February 5, when she was referred to Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan. She was reported to be in a stable condition.
At the daily briefing, Chuang said there were at least six family clusters of infected patients. “That means that transmission of the virus within a family is very high,” she added.
Chuang said six of the confirmed cases were possibly infected locally. “The ratio is getting higher. We are worried the local spread will get more serious,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Professor Yuen of the University of Hong Kong noted that nearly a third of the cases had no travel history related to the coronavirus. “The local transmission chain has begun, and if we do nothing to control it, Hong Kong will become like some mainland city that has suffered lots of cases,” he warned.
Yuen added that all measures must be taken to break the chain of a local spread, noting that transmission of the virus had proved to be very efficient, similar to seasonal flu.
“Many people blamed me earlier for exaggerating the situation previously, but what I said was based on scientific facts,” he said.
“Once we have a bigger outbreak, even if you do not close the border, the city will be isolated [by others]. It would be too late then.”
While no word came from the government, executive councillor Lam Ching-choi said authorities were thinking of asking returning Hongkongers to self-quarantine at home. He also said non-locals, including mainlanders, could be quarantined in their own hotel rooms or government facilities.
“We can accept it if they are staying in hotels, and hotel employees can even help us to see if they obey the [quarantine] order,” Lam said. “They can call police if the visitors run away.”
But the government adviser admitted there might not be adequate quarantine facilities, adding officials were rushing to find new locations such as hotels or holiday camps.
A source familiar with the government’s position said mainland travellers would have to bear the cost of extending their hotel stay for the full two weeks.
“For those mainlanders who haven’t booked hotel rooms in Hong Kong, the government will put them in quarantine centres,” he said, adding they would not be charged for that stay, but would have to foot the bill for medical expenses, according to existing policy.
While the virus threat had triggered panic across much of Hong Kong for surgical masks, the anxiety extended midweek to other items being cleared from supermarket shelves.
But Kenneth Chan Kin-nin, chairman of the Rice Merchants’ Association of Hong Kong, said rice was in ample supply, adding that 90 per cent of it came from Thailand and Vietnam.
“The supply of rice is regulated by the government and we still have 13,000 tonnes in storage, which are yet to be used,” he said.
The traders said food supply would be completely cut off if truck drivers were also put under the 14-day quarantine, warning there would not be enough replacement manpower.
But a source told the Post that cross-border truck drivers would be exempted precisely to guarantee the supply of food and other goods to the city.
“It’s groundless to say that food will run into short supply in Hong Kong after the implementation of the new measures,” he said.
Food Council chairman Ng said traders were more than happy to comply with increased measures to prevent contagion, such as temperature checks for drivers at customs and additional disinfection of truck wheels and containers. “While these measures would delay checks by about 15 minutes, we will make sure consumers do not bear that cost,” he said.
President of the Pork Traders General Association of Hong Kong Hui Wai-kin similarly vowed to ensure a stable supply of the meat.
The amount of seafood stocks from Guangdong province had dropped, as the Chinese government mandated that fishermen returning to work after the Lunar New Year holiday self-quarantine for 14 days.
The order would be effective until February 9, said Lee Choi Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Seafood Merchants. “But we have more than enough supply from Southeast Asia, where seafood is cheaper.”
Lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai, who represents the wholesale and retail sectors, said: “While wholesale prices have not increased, we hope individual retailers will keep their prices reasonable.” He urged people not to store food for too long, as even items such as rice could go bad.
But those lining up were not persuaded, with many joining queues not knowing what they were for. Apart from rice and paper, sanitary and baby napkins were also being snapped up, along with condoms.
Paul Yip Siu-fai, chair professor in social work and social administration at HKU, said people were “taking matters into their own hands” by stocking up on goods because the government had not shown it was in command of the situation.
“Throughout this outbreak the government has been in its own echo chamber rather than in communication with the people,” Yip said. He called for a dedicated television channel to provide information about the coronavirus and debunk rumours.
Among those left anxious was clerk Henry Lui, 29. He was at ParknShop International in Sai Ying Pun on a failed mission to buy toilet paper, to add to the two rolls he had left at home. He had gone to four other stores before that. “I feel very helpless,” he said, lugging a box of instant noodles. “Housewives have incredible shopping power.”
In the medical sector, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager of cluster performance, Dr Ian Cheung Tsz-fung, thanked some strikers who came back to help out at a neonatal unit for a limited period following appeals.
On Thursday’s talks with the strike organiser, Hospital Authority director Tony Ko Pak-sing described the vibe as “good”, adding that both sides shared some similar goals.
But Hospital Authority Employees Alliance chairwoman Winnie Yu Wai-ming expressed her “utter disappointment”, saying Ko’s side had beat around the bush with no solid details on how equipment could be replaced in the face of a shortage.
“Even a promise as simple as no retaliation [against the strikes] could have been made,” she said, adding that both sides would meet again on Friday. If no agreement is reached, Yu said, members would vote again after Friday on whether to continue the action.
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