The cost of face masks has spiked sharply across Hong Kong in recent days, with some pharmacies tripling prices as residents and tourists worried by the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus scramble to stock up on the protective gear.
On Friday afternoon, masks in two of six pharmacies the Post visited in the popular Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district were out of stock, while some were charging as much as HK$200 for a box of 50 surgical masks, and HK$60 for an N95 respirator, widely used during the 2003 Sars outbreak, which claimed 299 lives in Hong Kong.
Long queues were also spotted across the city, including at Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong and AEON department store in Tai Koo, with the latter restricting customers to two boxes of masks each.
Retailers blamed the price increases on a spike in costs, saying there was limited wholesale supply.
On Lok Road, the Lung Shing pharmacy charged HK$150 for a box of surgical masks. Masks were unavailable for individual sale.
"The wholesale prices are high. It's difficult to get the stock," a saleswoman who declined to be named said.
The HK$60 price tag for a N95 was up 30 per cent from the shop's normal rate, she said, adding that some customers told her they found the same kind of mask being sold for as much as HK$120 elsewhere.
Asking about mask prices, local resident Phoebe Chu said she had bought a box of 50 for HK$55 at a Kwun Tong pharmacy on Wednesday, when Hong Kong reported its first two cases of coronavirus.
But when the marketing worker returned to the same branch on Friday, the price for the same type of masks had surged to HK$150.
"I don't believe there is a real shortage. It's more like taking advantage of the unfortunate event," the woman in her 30s said.
"The government should monitor the market and disallow businesses to raise prices up by multiple times."
She added that officials could buy masks for residents as has been done by the Macau government, which ordered 20 million face masks to be sold to citizens at a low price.
Italian tourist Carlo Cocco, 59, who came to the city for a three-day trip, said he had visited six pharmacies before finding a face mask for HK$30.
Cocco said he had been on a cruise trip and unaware Hong Kong had confirmed cases of infection.
"I am just a little bit worried. It's not a big problem in Hong Kong, it's more in Wuhan," the retiree said.
In Causeway Bay, some prices were even higher. One shop priced a box of 50 US brand masks at HK$268.
"I'm not buying that. This is way too expensive," said local banker Jay Wong, who had already bought more than 100 masks for himself, his wife and son.
Wong also expressed frustration at what he saw as a lack of government action.
"Government officials themselves are not wearing masks. The government was reluctant to do health notification at the border initially and would not want to consider locking down the border," Wong said.
On Thursday evening, acting chief executive Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee did not wear masks as they announced plans to tighten preventive measures, including extending health declaration requirements to high-speed rail passengers.
At the same press conference, Constance Chan Hon-yee, the director of health, said it was not necessary to wear masks in normal social settings, unless people had symptoms of illness.
Cheung also acknowledged the surging demand in the retail market, and said officials would have an emergency meeting with mask suppliers on Friday.
He said a few new batches of masks should arrive in the city next week, and that the government would see if they could push for the goods to arrive sooner.
Lam Wai-man, chairman of Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy, meanwhile, said supply was tight and that he did not expect new masks to arrive from the mainland until about February 5, as logistic firms were closed during the Lunar New Year holidays.
He added that pharmacies could try to get masks from Japan and Taiwan, but the cost would be higher.
Unaddressed at this point is the protest-driven ban on face masks, which went into effect in early October, only to be ruled unconstitutional by the Court of First Instance. A decision on the government's appeal of that ruling is pending.
Amid criticism of the government's efforts, meanwhile, at least five district councils " all controlled by pan-democrats " have approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to distribute masks and antiseptic solutions to local residents and the elderly.
To better protect residents, Central and Western district council's finance committee this week passed a motion allocating HK$1.3 million to outbreak prevention.
Councillor Fergus Leung said they had previously approved HK$200,000 in funding to purchase about 10,000 masks and 5,000 bottles of antiseptic solution, and decided to increase the funding due to the latest developments. Some of those fund will go toward public education.
"We feel that the government has delayed in responding to the latest outbreak of the coronavirus," Leung said.
"Especially, there is little public education, with most focus on public hospitals. So the district council has to step up and fill the void."
Tsuen Wan district council separately granted HK$1 million to the charity Caritas and is expected to begin distributing packages of masks and hand sanitisers to 20,000 elderly or underprivileged residents in early February.
Councillor Adrian Lau Cheuk-yu also criticised government response as "slow and bureaucratic". "But other than criticising, we also have to do something," he said.
District Councils in Yuen Long, Tuen Mun and Southern District have decided to grant HK$500,000 each to the cause, and similar motions are being studied in Northern District and Sai Kung.
The Consumer Council has urged businesses to think about social responsibility and avoid trying to profit from the situation.
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