People walk past a fruit stall in Hong Kong. Food security is beoming an issue across the region. Photograph: Photo: Billy HC Kwok / Getty Images via AFP

Hong Kong residents rushed to supermarkets and fresh food wet markets on Monday (February 7) to stock up on food and supplies as a record number of Covid cases locked up logistics systems on the border with the mainland and sparked fears of shortages.

Hong Kong imports 90% of its food supplies, with the mainland its top source for fresh food. Hong Kong residents have already seen shortages of some foreign imported goods, including premium seafood, due to recently imposed more stringent flight restrictions.

The number of local Covid cases in Hong Kong, which has followed Beijing’s order to adopt a “zero local infection” policy since early 2021, hit a high of 614 cases on Monday, compared with 343 on Sunday.

That’s raising certain questions about the city’s ability to maintain the policy, which has come under rising international criticism for closing off the business and financial hub from the rest of the world

But a Chinese state media commentary said Hong Kong should maintain its “dynamic zero infection” strategy, which does not refer to absolute zero cases but rather strong measures to stop the spread of the virus. Hong Kong health officials said new tightened anti-epidemic rules will be announced on Tuesday.

Hong Kong’s fifth epidemic wave began in late December after flight attendants who were exempted from the usual 21-day quarantine brought the Omicron variant to the city. In early January, a newly arrived Hong Kong woman, who was infected at a quarantine hotel, spread the Delta variant in Kwai Chung Estate.

Since January 8, the Hong Kong government has banned passenger flights from eight countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, the Philippines, India and Pakistan.

It has also strengthened quarantine requirements for flight crew. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, said early last month that it would only operate 20% of its air cargo capacity. At that time, Hong Kong only reported a handful of local new cases per day.

On January 13, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Hong Kong citizens should expect that the prices of imported high-end food would increase due to the reduced air cargo capacity.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference on the government’s strategy for Covid-19 vaccinations, in Hong Kong, China December 23, 2020. Photo: AFP

Gary Lau Ho-yin, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics, said at that time that the prices of frozen meat, seafood, fruit and electronic products would increase as air logistics costs would rise by 30-40% in the weeks ahead.

Sunny Ho Lap-kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Logistics Management Staff Association, said the surge in food prices would be mild as fresh food could be imported from mainland China.

However, Hong Kong’s epidemic situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past one week as people reveled in gatherings during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Last Monday, the number of local infections was 80. The number of new cases has roughly doubled every two days since then.

On Sunday, hundreds of residents were seen queuing up outside testing centers in Tuen Mun and Shatin after virus outbreaks were identified. On Monday, Health Secretary Sophia Chan admitted that the city did not have enough lateral flow test kits, but the government was trying to buy more as quickly as possible.

Chan said a citywide test scheme would be launched once the government procured enough kits.

Last Friday and Saturday, two truck drivers were quarantined after they tested positive for the coronavirus on the Shenzhen border. A number of other drivers were also forced to isolate themselves in hotels. They were allowed to return to Hong Kong after they tested negative on Sunday.

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said in a statement that vegetable supplies at the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market were normal on Sunday, while the Western Wholesale Market saw a drop in supplies. The spokesperson said overall fresh food supplies remained stable, adding that supplies of chilled pork, poultry and eggs from the mainland were at normal levels.

Yuen Cheong, chairman of the Hong Kong Imported Vegetable Wholesale Merchants Association, said vegetable prices increased about 20-30% on Sunday due to the logistics hiccup on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. But some residents said the price of some vegetables had actually surged by several times at wet markets.

Hong Kong food prices are rising as Covid hits supply chains. Image: AFP

Hong Kong consumers would have to pay more for food and other daily necessities in the coming months, the Consumer Council’s chief executive Gilly Wong said in a media briefing on Monday.

“The suppliers are having a lot of challenges in shipping different kinds of goods into Hong Kong,” Wong added. “Unfortunately, consumers have to suffer in the next few months with further inflation on different kinds of daily goods.”

According to the Consumer Council, canned food prices have jumped 20% and frozen meat has increased 10% from a year ago. It said the price of a basket of 230 items it monitored at supermarkets rose by almost 2% over the same period.

On Sunday, the government said the Penny’s Bay quarantine center, which was used to isolate newly arrived travelers and close contacts of Covid patients last year, would soon start to receive local patients with mild or even no symptoms.

Tony Ko, head of the city’s Hospital Authority, said patients would eventually have to self-isolate at home if quarantine facilities became overwhelmed.

On January 29, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho said medical experts who urged the government to adopt a “living with the virus” strategy, which was in conflict with Beijing’s “dynamic zero infection” policy, were irresponsible and may have violated the National Security Law.

Although the government later clarified that it’s legal to discuss the two opposed strategies, most of Hong Kong’s medical experts have so far followed the official line that the city was not ready to live with the virus.

On Monday, a People’s Daily commentary said Hong Kong should maintain the “dynamic zero infection” policy, which has been the most effective way to fight the pandemic and protect the city’s residents.

It said giving up the policy would hurt Hong Kong’s economy, add burden to the city’s medical system and threaten people’s health and safety. It also said it’s too early to discuss “living with the virus,” which has not been scientifically proven to work.

A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong on May 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

The Hong Kong government said it would tighten the city’s social distancing rules after the Executive Council held its weekly meeting on Tuesday. Leung Chi-chiu, a respiratory disease expert, said the government should impose the strictest social distancing rules to make people stay home to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

“It’s a critical period because we’re seeing an exponential increase in cases. It’s doubling every two to three days just as what occurred in Europe in the past two months,” Leung said. “With the efforts of everyone during these two weeks, we hope to reverse the rapidly increasing trend. If not, we may be seeing over 10,000 cases per day after two weeks.”

Currently, Hong Kong’s leisure venues including cinemas, gyms and mahjong parlors are closed, while restaurants must stop serving dine-in customers after 6 pm. No more than six people can dine together at one table at restaurants but there is no restriction on home gatherings.

Officials said more premises would likely be closed while the number of people allowed on each table at restaurants would be reduced.

Read: HK finally eases inbound quarantine from 21 to 14 days

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3