Coronavirus: Aussie supermarket chain Woolworths holds 'elderly hour' as panic buying continues

People shop at a Woolworths supermarket in Sydney on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's elderly were let in early to supermarkets on Tuesday (March 17) but there were still scenes of coronavirus panic buying in some areas, with reports of empty shelves and large queues.

After rushes on groceries, the country's biggest supermarket chain opened exclusively for elderly and disabled shoppers for an hour in an attempt to let them purchase essentials like toilet paper - which has repeatedly sold out and sparked several violent incidents.

But the move prompted long queues outside several stores in Sydney and Melbourne, with reports of shoppers leaving empty handed.

"It's day one of our dedicated shopping hour and we know it wasn't perfect across all of our stores," Woolworths Supermarkets managing director Claire Peters said in a statement.

"Supermarkets would learn from today and continue the early hour shopping through the week", she said.

Despite security guards blocking younger shoppers from entering stores, unprecedented demand still led to many items disappearing.

At Woolworths' Neutral Bay store in Sydney's north, shopper sentiment about the move was mixed.

"It is important but I don't think it is the best way. The best way, I think must be delivery at home because you look at a 93-year-old coming shopping, it's better to do delivery," 71-year-old Irie Voico told AFP as he waited for the store to open.

Another customer, who didn't want to be identified, said he was worried about bringing all the elderly together in a group where coronavirus could easily spread.

But several welcomed the move, saying the mood was good among those older shoppers turning out early to avoid chaotic scenes.

"This morning was well managed, full marks to Woolworths. Everyone was well mannered in there," 75-year-old Max Hill said.

Ms Robyn Swan, 73, said the mood at the store on Monday had been frantic when shelves were bare but on Tuesday, they had been restocked.

"I've got what I wanted. I'm trying not to do the frantic shopping but I can see it's easy to do; I live on my own so I don't need to panic like my children with their grandchildren," Ms Swan said.

Australia has nearly 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus so far, with five fatalities.

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