Hong Kong toilet roll heist underscores coronavirus panic-buying

Via Financial Times

Fears over the coronavirus have prompted such shortages of everyday goods in Hong Kong that thieves have held up a supermarket in the city to steal a delivery of toilet paper.

Two men were arrested on Monday after they allegedly used a knife to steal the loo roll, as fears over the deadly coronavirus have led to panic-buying in the city of not only toiletries but also rice and cleaning products.

Police said the men were detained following the alleged theft and that part of the loot had been recovered from a hotel in the city’s busy Mong Kok market district. Officers said they were still searching for a third suspect.

The panic-buying in Hong Kong came as the economic effects of the covid-19 outbreak that has infected more than 70,000 people reverberated around the region’s economies.

Singapore slashed its growth forecast citing the effects from the virus on tourism and trade. “The covid-19 outbreak is expected to affect the Singapore economy through several channels,” the city-state’s ministry of trade and industry said on Monday. It revised its annual GDP growth estimate down to -0.5 to -1.5 per cent, from 0.5 to 2.5 per cent.

The virus had led to 1,770 deaths in mainland China at the latest count released on Monday, with 100 of the 105 new fatalities recorded in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak. There were 2,048 new cases, taking the total to 70,548.

As Beijing sought to soften the economic impact of an outbreak that has resonated around the world, China’s central bank on Monday moved to cut the rate it uses as a low point for its lending benchmark — driving Chinese equities higher.

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The People’s Bank of China cut its medium-term lending facility rate by 0.1 percentage points to 3.15 per cent on Rmb200bn ($28.6bn) worth of loans that were offered. The central bank had already cut its short-term lending rate as markets returned from the extended lunar new year holiday.

The liquidity injection helped rally stocks, with the CSI 300 index of major Shanghai and Shenzhen-listed stocks rising 2 per cent.

South Korea also said on Monday it planned to extend Won420bn ($356m) in emergency loans to support struggling airlines, shipping companies, travel agencies and retailers facing a liquidity crunch due to growing fears over the virus’ spread.

In Singapore, fears over the impact of the virus were set to hurt domestic consumption and tourism, the ministry said. The city-state’s tourism board said last week it expected the arrivals this year to fall by at least a quarter.

Hong Kong has been badly affected by the fallout from the virus, which follows a months-long protest movement that also disrupted the economy.

As rumours of shortages have prompted a rush to stockpile, stores have limited sales of toilet paper to two packs per customer. Supermarket deliveries of multiple pallets of toilet paper have sold out within minutes as customers rush to join queues to buy the daily necessity.

Facial tissues and kitchen roll have also been selling out quickly and were not available in supermarkets and pharmacies while face masks and hand sanitisers were often sold out. Supplies of food staples such as rice as well as bleach and other cleaning products were also in short supply.

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Following the alleged theft on Monday, a video on the NowTV channel showed police outside a Wellcome supermarket in Mong Kok next to a delivery of toilet paper.