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Do not take advantage of coronavirus panic, watchdog warns retailers

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With hand sanitiser sold out or being rationed in some stores, shoppers have turned to online retailers. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA The competition watchdog is considering asking the government to regulate prices of hand sanitiser and other protective kit relating to the coronavirus amid concern that businesses and individuals are cashing in on fears of shortages.…

Empty shelf in pharmacy with sign saying hand sanitisers limited to two per customer






With hand sanitiser sold out or being rationed in some stores, shoppers have turned to online retailers.
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

The competition watchdog is considering asking the government to regulate prices of hand sanitiser and other protective kit relating to the coronavirus amid concern that businesses and individuals are cashing in on fears of shortages.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was monitoring reports of price rises and other changes in sales practices during the outbreak and wanted to “ensure that traders do not exploit the current situation to take advantage of people”.

The regulator said would take “direct enforcement action” against any companies that had broken competition or consumer protection law by, for example, by “charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about the efficacy of protective equipment”. In the past the CMA has taken such action against misleading tactics by hotel booking sites.

It is also assessing whether to advise the government to consider taking direct action to regulate prices.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

The CMA’s chief executive, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We urge retailers to behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices. We also remind members of the public that these obligations may apply to them too if they resell goods, for example on online marketplaces.”

With some products, particularly hand sanitiser and other anti-bacterial products, sold out or being rationed in some stores, shoppers have turned to online retailers.

Last week Amazon admitted it was struggling to prevent profiteering as “bad actors” attempt to cash in on coronavirus fears by raising prices of masks and sanitisers by as much as 2,000%.

The US company said it had removed “tens of thousands” of listings. Other websites including eBay, Walmart and Etsy have also struggled to limit profiteering by sellers.

Analysts have likened the situation to a game of whack-a-mole, with products reappearing soon after deletion.

The CMA’s chairman, Lord Tyrie, said: “We will do whatever we can to act against rip-offs and misleading claims, using any or all of our tools; and where we can’t act, we’ll advise government on further steps they could take, if necessary.”

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