Hong Kong Residents Scramble for Supplies Amid Lockdown Reports


Hong Kong residents emptied store shelves in a scramble to prepare for a reported lockdown of the city later this month, when officials will carry out a mandatory testing drive intended to contain a snowballing Covid outbreak. 

Restrictions on movement within the city will be enforced to ensure the testing effort is effective, Sing Tao Daily and other domestic media reported Tuesday. Testing of the financial hub’s 7.4 million people will start after March 17, Sing Tao said, citing people it didn’t identify. 

With no official information released and uncertainty building over the extent of the lockdown, waves of panic-buying stripped supermarkets and pharmacies of supplies. Long lines were also seen outside some banks.

Officials are aiming to test the whole city three times over nine days, with a stay-at-home order in place to maximize impact, Sing Tao and other media including the South China Morning Post reported. Hong Kong’s core financial services including the operations of the stock exchange will continue during the testing period, according to the report. Officials were said to be still working out the specifics.

Leaving Home

Residents will be allowed to leave their homes to buy necessities like food during the lockdown, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported along with the SCMP, both citing unidentified people. Exemptions will be made for some essential workers, but the government is still assessing how widespread the lockdown will be and whether to take moves such as halting public transport, according to the SCMP. 

The rush to secure supplies in the city came despite the government’s reassurance late Monday night that food supply in Hong Kong was stable, with vegetables and chilled poultry imported from the mainland on Sunday at 90% of the average daily volume last year. 

The Hong Kong government didn’t immediately respond to queries on the reports from Bloomberg News. 

After two years of limited outbreaks, Hong Kong is facing its toughest challenge of the pandemic, with the highly transmissible omicron variant testing its zero-tolerance, high intensity approach to keeping Covid out. New cases have ballooned from a few hundred a day to more than 34,000 on Monday. 

Deaths have surged to eight per 1 million people over the past 10 days, one of the world’s highest rates, with the under-vaccinated elderly population bearing the brunt. Officials have already had to relinquish some key containment measures, including mandatory isolation of patients and detailed contact tracing, as the outbreak spirals out of control. 

Empty Shelves

While the testing and lockdown aren’t supposed to begin for a couple of weeks, residents weren’t waiting before stocking up. 

Some major retailers said they would suspend operations or close early, further fueling the panic. Mannings, a major health and beauty products chain owned by Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd., said it would temporarily shut 53 of its more than 300 stores across the city until further notice, citing workforce consolidation during Covid.

ParknShop, one of Hong Kong’s largest supermarket chains owned by CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd., announced shorter hours for most stores, with some closing as early as 3 p.m. It cited concerns over staff and customer health during the Covid outbreak.

Whether public transport would keep running during the planned lockdown is unknown, but MTR Corp said it might have to run fewer trains and close some stations regardless as hundreds of staff have been infected, RTHK reported. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered Hong Kong last month to quell infections using “all necessary measures.” The country is the last remaining adherent of the so-called Covid Zero strategy, which successfully eliminated the virus in places like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore early on, but is now being abandoned in the face of the more contagious virus strains. 

Mainland officials have been urging Hong Kong to consider a lockdown, people familiar with discussions between the two sides told Bloomberg News last week. But officials have been reluctant given the impact it would have on the densely populated city. 

“We need to seriously evaluate the level of restriction for citizens to go out because many people still have to provide services,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in Shenzhen on Monday. “I believe that the number of civil servants to support the testing will be in tens of thousands. Those who are providing essential and emergency services cannot be restricted and there must be a way for them to go out.”

The Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades urged the government to impose a seven-day lockdown in an open letter released Monday. The association, which represents over 1,200 members operating over 8,000 restaurants, said that it would be the most effective way to control the outbreak, and that businesses can’t sustain losses if the epidemic drags on. 

European Lockdown

China was the first place in the world to impose a Covid lockdown when it sealed off Wuhan in early 2020, and it has been deploying the tactic again in recent months as virus flare-ups become more common. 

Nine days, as is reportedly planned in Hong Kong, is relatively short for a China-style lockdown. The mainland primarily deploys the measure to drive infections back toward zero rather than to mass test, which it typically does anyway. Xi’an in central China was locked down for a month earlier in the year, and strict curbs on people’s activities were in place. They weren’t able to walk dogs and food was largely delivered by the state. A lockdown in Baise, a smaller city in China’s southwest, was lifted last month after 20 days as the outbreak came under control. 

In Europe and other parts of the West that deployed pandemic lockdowns, residents were still allowed out to shop for groceries and exercise, with some exceptions. 

Stay-at-home orders have largely been imposed as a way of stopping the virus’s spread, however, not necessarily to facilitate testing. Experts argue Hong Kong’s political climate — with the city rocked by anti-Beijing protests in 2019 — and dense living environment make a widespread lockdown untenable. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Feb. 15 that the government had no plans “whatsoever” to impose a “complete, wholesale lockdown.”

Nonetheless, concern about that possibility — and that families could be separated if they test positive in the mass testing drive — is fueling an exodus from the territory, with departures hitting a record in the week ending Feb. 27, according to the latest data from the Hong Kong Immigration department.