People queue up in front of a Watsons store in Tiu Keng Leng. Photo: Asia Times

The Hong Kong government has been criticized by lawmakers and citizens for failing to provide any concrete plan to increase the supply of surgical masks amid the intensifying Wuhan coronavirus epidemic.

Early on Thursday, people started queuing in front of Watsons, a local health-care-product retail chain owned by tycoon Li Ka-shing, as it said in a Facebook post at midnight that it would sell 20 boxes of masks in each of its 230 stores.

A woman who went to a Watsons store at 2am said she felt helpless as the government had done nothing to ensure the mask supply in the city, according to an RTHK report. Another woman who joined the queue at 3am said she and her husband had fewer than 10 masks at home and would have to stay home if she could not buy any more.

By 6am, more than 20 people were still in queues outside each of the Watsons stores. In Tseung Kwan O Plaza, where an infected man had been, more than 300 people were queuing up outside a Watson store at 8am. A woman arrived came too late, so she gave up her plan to queue up.

At 10:30am, staff delivered the first 20 people a quota each to buy a box of 50 masks and the following 20 people a quota to buy an alcohol-based hand rub. Some customers who were unable to buy the products blamed the staff and the government for their disappointment.

In Tin Shui Wai, some customers struck the gate of a Watsons store while another pushed down a pile of goods after they were unable to buy masks. Police came to intervene.

People also queued up for 500 boxes of masks in each of the four stores of Bonjour Cosmetics. A man said he took a taxi to go to one of the stores at 11:30am but failed to get a quota. He said he might to try to buy some masks in individual grocery stores but he was not sure about the quality.

People queue up to buy masks at Bonjour Cosmetics. Photo: RTHK

On Thursday morning, lawmakers from different parties held a meeting in the Legislative Council’s Panel on Health Services and urged the government to help ensure the supply of masks in the city.

Tanya Chan, a Civic Party legislator, said people rushed to buy masks and disinfectant products as they felt panic after the government refused to close all the borders with the mainland. She said Hong Kong people were trying to save themselves and the city.

Alice Mak Mei-kuen, a pro-establishment lawmaker of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, said it was sad to see that a lot of people had to queue up to buy masks during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, a pro-establishment lawmaker and former political assistant to the Secretary for Food and Health, criticized the Hong Kong government for its slow response, late decisions and wrong judgment during its anti-epidemic campaign. Chan said the government should immediately launch a health declaration for all incoming travelers, instead of only those who lived in or had visited Hubei province, and begin a citywide cleanup campaign. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei.

Earlier this week, all political parties called for a complete shutdown of Hong Kong’s border, but the government said on Tuesday that it was closing only six of the 14 control points from Thursday, fueling people’s concern about the epidemic.

Sophia Chan Siu-chee, secretary for food and health, said on Thursday that the government had contacted 140 suppliers and asked for more masks. Chan said the government would also consider manufacturing the masks domestically.

As of Thursday noon, the number of infected people in Guangdong province reached 354, including 94 in Guangzhou, 98 in Shenzhen and 26 in Zhuhai. Among the patients, 37 were in serious condition while 13 were in critical condition. Two patients were Hong Kong people.

In Hong Kong, a total of 10 cases have been confirmed, according to the Center for Health Protection. All cases were related to people who had lived or stayed in Hubei. The Hong Kong government on Wednesday identified 15 people who had come from Hubei in local hotels and had given them some medical advice.

Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said the government should declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong and force Hubei people to leave the city immediately. Tien said it was necessary to forbid all mainlanders from entering Hong Kong.

Read: Virus-panic buying hits Hong Kong supermarkets

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