‘Stop it,’ Dutch PM tells coronavirus panic-buying shoppers

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told shoppers stockpiling pasta, canned food and toilet paper to “stop it” on Friday, saying there was no shortage of groceries, a day after the government imposed restrictions to try to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

Shelves in many supermarkets around the country were stripped bare in hours, prompting Rutte to make a public statement that “stockpiling is not needed”.

“It’s also a little annoying for people who have been working hard to combat this crisis and then come home to a local supermarket and find shelves half-empty,” he said. “Stop it.”

On Thursday, the government announced a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people, told companies to encourage employees to work from home and said anyone with flu-like symptoms should stay home. Schools, however, have remained open.

They were the most far-reaching measures yet in the Netherlands, where the number of recorded new coronavirus infections on Friday reached 804, with 10 deaths.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a cashier at one supermarket in Amsterdam. “Even during the Christmas holidays I have never seen so many people with full shopping carts.”

In the past weeks, the Netherlands had seen a slight uptick in the sale of hygiene products, soups and other non-perishables, but the government move was met with panic-buying.

People were also buying cleaning products, paracetamol, flour and hand disinfectants, which were selling out.

“They just pulled the toilet paper right off my trolley and I saw a customer take 12 bags of flour,” a 16-year-old stocking shelves at a supermarket in Utrecht said.

Pictures of empty shelves and overflowing trolleys were being shared on Dutch social media under the hashtag “hamsteren” or “hoarding”.

Rutte defended the government’s decision to keep schools open, which has been challenged by opposition politicians and some educators and student groups.

“With this virus the chance that a child can transmit it is very small,” Rutte said.

Keeping schools open “is the most prudent thing to do,” he said. “That’s what all the experts who advise us say, on the basis of all the studies that there are.”

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague and Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Giles Elgood)