Amidst the new coronavirus outbreak, it has become apparent globally that prices at some retailers and online platforms for coronavirus-related products – such as hand sanitiser gel and respiratory masks – have increased sharply.
The Chief Executive of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Andrea Coscelli, urged retailers to “behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices.” Moreover, Coscelli reminded “members of the public that these obligations may apply to them too if they resell goods, for example on online marketplaces.” On March 5, the CMA issued a statement that it will be monitoring reports of changes to sales and pricing practices for coronavirus-related products. The CMA will consider direct enforcement action in appropriate cases if it has evidence that businesses have broken competition or consumer protection law such as by charging excessive prices.
In France, Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire announced March 4 that the French government suspects that retailers and pharmacists have been taking advantage of consumers stocking up to protect against coronavirus to apply abusive price increases, and it will therefore regulate the price of alcohol-based hand gels.
Le Maire also asked his ministry’s Department of Competition, Consumption and Fraud Repression (DGCCRF) to open an investigation into the sudden surge of prices for alcohol-based hand gels. The DGCCRF can impose fines on businesses of up to 150,000 euros (£130,000) or 5% of a company’s revenue, whichever value is lower.
On March 3, the UK government published its “Coronavirus: action plan,” described as “A guide to what you can expect across the UK,” outlining what the UK as a whole has done – and plans to do – to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.
As yet, the UK government has given no public indication that it intends to regulate the pricing of coronavirus-related products. However, it is not impossible that it would consider a similar regulation necessary. The UK government has talked about the possibility of emergency legislation in some areas, and would be likely to see action to stop what could be seen as profiteering as publicly popular.