SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s major grocers put strict limits on purchases of toilet paper on Wednesday after a rush of panic buying related to coronavirus fears emptied shelves, as the country recorded its third case of local transmission of the disease.
Australia was one of the first countries to take a hardline on tackling the outbreak, imposing border controls on visitors from the epidemic’s epicenter in China a month ago.
It has reported 41 cases of the coronavirus – the bulk of those evacuees from a cruise ship docked in Japan – and just three cases of local transmission, where people who have not left the country were infected.
Still, social media has been awash in recent days with photos and video of people stockpiling goods, including sanitizing products and staples like rice and eggs.
The run on toilet paper in particular has sparked the trending hashtags #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis on Twitter, along with photos of overloaded shopping trolleys, and calls for calm from baffled officials.
“We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.
Woolworths Group Ltd, the country’s biggest grocery chain, restricted sales of the essential product to four packs per shopper.
“It will help shore up stock levels as suppliers ramp up local production and deliveries in response to higher than usual demand,” the statement said.
The local arm of Costco Wholesale Corp limited its bulk buy packs to one per customer after observing an “influx of people in warehouses across the country in the past week ‘stocking up’”.
Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weighed in on a purchasing trend that appears to be at odds with stockpiling of long-lasting food like tinned goods in other countries, telling the public he had been assured by the major grocers they could meet any spike in demand.
Other products have also been seized on by shoppers. Costco has put limits on purchases of milk, eggs, rice and disinfecting and soap products. Coles Group Ltd began posting signs in stores advising shoppers about shortages of hand and laundry sanitizer a few weeks ago.
Coles and German-owned discounter Aldi Inc did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. U.S.-listed Kimberly-Clark Corp, which makes toilet paper for the Australian market via local subsidiaries, was not immediately available for comment.
Australia’s latest confirmed coronavirus case, a 50-year-old woman, is the third person to have contracted the illness without traveling overseas, stoking fears the virus will spread more quickly through the community.
Officials said the woman worked at an aged care home in New South Wales state, where two elderly residents at the facility were also tested for the virus. One has been hospitalized while the other, a 95-year old woman, has died.
“Whether or not it was related to coronavirus, we don’t know at this point,” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters about the death.
Officials in NSW, the country’s most populous state, were already investigating the case of a 53-year doctor who contracted the virus but had not treated any known infected patients.
Australia has banned arrivals of foreigners who have recently traveled through China since Feb. 1. It last week extended that ban to people arriving from Iran, but cautioned it could no longer guarantee an infected person would not get through its border quarantine checks.
The government on Wednesday said anyone who had arrived from Iran since Feb. 19 must self-isolate for two weeks.
Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jane Wardell