UPDATE: Saved by the Gel…again? Since our original post, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued a statement March 5 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.
The Chief Executive of the 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.” The CMA is currently assessing whether it should advise the government to consider taking direct action to regulate prices.
Amidst the 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.
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 (£103,000) 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 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 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. The Competition and Markets Authority also has the power to investigate suspected pricing abuses.