Armed robbers stole 600 rolls of toilet paper from outside a Hong Kong supermarket on Monday, as panic buying over the spread of the coronavirus showed little signs of easing.
Three masked men stole the toilet paper wrapped in about 50 packets, worth about $206, from a delivery man outside a Wellcome store in Mong Kok at around 6am on Monday. Police said one of the men was armed with two knives.
Two people, aged 49 and 54, had been arrested by midday on Monday, and the police said they were hunting down three more people thought to be aged between 20 and 30.
The stolen toilet rolls were found in a guest house in the same district, not far from where it was taken.
The incident followed weeks of panic buying at supermarkets across Hong Kong after online rumors sparked fears of a shortage of essential goods following the outbreak of the virus, which originated in mainland China.
Toilet paper rolls, rice and cleaning products have been sold out in many stores across the city.
Supermarket chain Wellcome said its workers were threatened and robbed while they were unloading a delivery of toilet rolls from a lorry at the store. No one was injured.
"This is a senseless act and we are shocked," its spokeswoman said.
She added all Wellcome stores had a sufficient supply of toilet rolls with regular supply coming in, as she urged customers not to bulk purchase in panic.
"A temporary shortage was caused by a sudden and unusual surge in demand. We will do our utmost to speed up replenishment in our stores until the situation stabilizes," she said.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung believed the rolls of toilet paper could be considered valuable items given the supply issues, adding the case itself was serious.
"Whether it is money or toilet paper being robbed, that's not the most important consideration by the court.
"Since this incident is likely premeditated and it's an armed gang robbery, these are all aggravating factors which make the case more serious compared with other robbery cases," said Luk.
Luk added that robbery carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
On Sunday, Gilly Wong Fung-han, the Consumer Council's chief executive, appealed to the public not to stockpile toilet rolls, as the humid climate made them susceptible to mold.
She added that major suppliers had already said there would be sufficient stock, but a shortage of masks, and the spread of the virus, which causes the Covid-19 disease, has further fueled public fears.
Hong Kong recorded its 61st confirmed case of infection on Tuesday, and there has been one death. Globally, more than 70,000 people have fallen ill and almost 1,800 have died, mostly in mainland China.
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