Three men stole 600 toilet paper rolls in Hong Kong amid fears of coronavirus shortages

Hong Kong CNN  — 

Police in Hong Kong have arrested two men and are searching for a third after the group stole about 600 toilet paper rolls, in a robbery likely sparked by coronavirus fears that have gripped the city.

Early Monday morning, a delivery worker was transporting goods to a supermarket in the city’s Mong Kok district. He had placed about 50 packs of toilet rolls, containing a total of about 600 rolls, outside the supermarket when three men stole them, a police spokesperson told CNN.

Several hours later, the police found the stolen toilet rolls in a nearby guesthouse, and arrested two of the men. They are investigating the incident as a robbery, and are still looking for the third suspect. No additional identifying information for the three men is available at this stage.

The robbery comes amid heightened fears of supply shortages in Hong Kong as the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread. The coronavirus, formally known as Covid-19, has infected more than 71,000 people globally, with 57 confirmed cases in Hong Kong. One person has died of the virus in the city – marking one of only five deaths that have taken place outside mainland China.

Earlier this month, in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, the Hong Kong government announced it would close some borders with mainland China – sparking unsubstantiated rumors that supply chains from China would be cut off. Residents rushed to supermarkets to load up on supposedly endangered goods such as toilet paper rolls, rice, hand sanitizer, and other cleaning products.

The city government urged residents not to panic buy, trying to reassure the public that the supply chain would not be cut off – but to no avail. Videos online show crowds of people at supermarkets across the city wildly jostling for toilet paper rolls.

Hong Kong residents buying toilet rolls amid fears of shortages on February 11, 2020.

Soon, supermarkets sold out entirely of toilet rolls, food staples, and other crucial goods; photos inside supermarkets showed barren shelves and empty aisles.

The toilet roll crisis sparked controversy in Hong Kong. After photos circulated on social media of residents hoarding multiple packs, some accused the panic buyers of unnecessarily creating chaos and confusion.

Gilly Wong, the head of Hong Kong’s Consumer Council, told public broadcaster RTHK that the panic buying had caused price hikes in toilet rolls and the loss of discounted offers.

A shopper next to bare supermarket shelves, usually stocked with toilet paper and kitchen rolls, in Hong Kong on February 6, 2020.

The government also condemned “rumor mongers with evil intentions” who had sparked the panic. Government measures against the coronavirus outbreak, like travel restrictions and border closures, “will not affect the freight services between the mainland and Hong Kong,” it said in a statement.

“There is no need for the public to worry,” it added.

Shoppers buying toilet rolls in a supermarket on February 11, 2020 in Hong Kong.

CNN spoke with two major Hong Kong supermarkets, two shipping companies, and two container operators – all of which said their supplies of food and other daily products were fine. Wellcome, a major supermarket chain, said any rumors of supply shortages are unfounded.

To prevent further panic buying, Wellcome – along with other supermarkets – have implemented limits on how many units of an item shoppers can buy at a time. For example, shoppers can only buy two units of rice, toilet rolls, antiseptic wipes, hand soap, and canned meat.