The government will consider providing temporary shelter for urns being kept in illegal columbariums, but a senior official said there was no guarantee the urns could be moved to public niche spaces.
Nor would Undersecretary for Food and Health Gabriel Leung guarantee government compensation for customers who bought niches in illegal columbariums.
'We cannot give priority to those consumers in this case, as it is unfair to others who have been queuing for public niches,' he said. 'The government will also not offer any guarantee because this will further fuel the boom of illegal operators.'
But Leung promised to study the possibility of providing interim storage for urns. He will put forward proposals in February when the government announces a final list of possible sites for public columbariums.
So far, 17 sites have been identified in 12 districts, although no final decisions have been taken. Leung pledged the sites would be run by non-profit groups and niches would be priced at a few thousand dollars, compared to tens of thousands in the private market.
Leung spoke a day after the government said operators of 52 columbariums had breached land leases or planning rules or occupied government sites. Only 29 operators were listed as complying with the rules.
Officials do not intend to shut non-compliant facilities at this stage.
Neither the government nor operators could put an estimate on the number of niches the 52 columbariums provide, nor how many have been sold.
Some operators and funeral agents said they had received calls in the past two days about some of the 52 columbariums the government named as being in breach of rules, but none of the callers had so far asked for a refund.
Lai Hau-yan, honorary chairman of the Funeral Business Association, expects more people will now wait for public niches even though they are in short supply.
'Most people will definitely not dare to buy niches from the 59 operators now, while only expensive or badly located niches are still available from the legal operators,' he said.
Operators of half of the 52 non-compliant sites - most of which are in the New Territories - disputed the government's claim they had broken rules. Fourteen are seeking what the government described as 'regularisation' to conform with regulations.
Among them is the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau. It is in talks with the Lands Department about making legal 2,000 niches it built illegally on government land adjacent to an existing columbarium.
Gilbert Leung Kam-ho, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Columbarium Merchants Association, said his group would challenge in court the legality of the government listing the 52 facilities as breaching rules.
'The government has been evasive in settling the issue in court and we are very puzzled why they have been delaying this while working on regularisation of the business at the same time,' Leung said.
Eddie Tse Sai-kit, of the Columbarium Concern Group, urged authorities to take enforcement action seriously. 'Look at those named illegal operators as well as those completely left out in the two lists - they are still selling niches to the public and who should be held responsible for that?'