Australian shops ration booze to foil hoarders amid virus shutdowns

By Byron Kaye

SYDNEY, April 1 (Reuters) - Australia's retailers are putting limits on purchases of alcohol as hoarders turn their attention from toilet paper and other household essentials to drink amid a widespread shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Supermarket giants Woolworths Group Ltd, Coles Group Ltd and others agreed this week to limit sales for each shopper after social distancing measures to keep people home resulted in spikes in drink purchases.

The measures show how panic buying that began with toilet paper and rice is making its way through the retail sector as people fret about product availability despite assurances from the authorities that there is enough to go around.

"Uncertainty on the impact of supply following the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants last week caused some people to purchase differently," said Julie Ryan, CEO of industry group Retail Drinks Australia which recommended the measure.

"These temporary measures will ensure that all consumers can continue to access their favourite drinks when they decide to make a purchase."

In Australia, where government figures show one in six adults drinks more than the recommended daily maximum, pubs and bars were closed last week under a shutdown intended to keep people apart and slow the spread of an illness that has infected nearly 5,000 Australians and led to 21 deaths.

That led to photos circulated on social media of Australians in liquor stores with trolleys piled high with drink, prompting warnings about heightened risk of alcohol-related violence and illness.

In the week to March 27, Australian spending in liquor shops was up 86% on the same period a year earlier, according to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Even factoring in the shutdown of pubs, bars and restaurants, alcohol spending jumped 34%.

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The new rationing is not stingy by most people's standards: each person may buy daily up to two cases of 24 beers each or pre-mixed drinks, a case of 12 bottles of wine, or two bottles of spirits, with a limit of two product categories.

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The limits do not apply in the state of Western Australia, where the government imposed its own limit on alcohol purchases, citing health concerns and hopes of curbing alcohol-fuelled violence.

"People are under a lot of stress, with worries about the disease, financial impacts and social isolation," said Caterina Giorgi, CEO of policy group the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

"Many people are at increased risk of alcohol use spiralling out of control, with negative effects on their own health and sometimes the safety of those around them."

The hoarding has moved beyond foodstuff at retailers. Shelves of stationery chain Officeworks, owned by Wesfarmers Ltd , have been stripped of home office gear amid a rush of people working from home. Nurseries are also sold out of seedlings of edible plants like tomatoes and potatoes as people plan for shortages. (Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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