Watchdogs warn pharmacies not to hike price of face masks

Two UK watchdogs have warned pharmacies they should not be overcharging customers for in-demand items including face masks, hand sanitiser and paracetamol.

With face masks compulsory on public transport and increasing numbers of people returning to work, these products remain in high demand but in a joint letter to businesses, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the General Pharmaceutical Council said this was not an opportunity to hike prices.

They said although most firms were doing the right thing, they had received reports “alleging that a small minority of pharmacies are seeking to benefit from the coronavirus pandemic by charging unjustifiably high prices for essential products”.

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The CMA referred to investigations it has launched into four retailers, including pharmacies, it suspected had charged “excessive and unfair” prices for hand sanitiser products.

The GPhC said it had written to some pharmacies asking them to review the prices they were charging for particular items and consider whether they should be changed.

The regulators said they recognised wholesale prices for some items had increased as a result of high demand but companies selling these on to consumers should not be increasing their mark-ups on them.

Extra costs for PPE and cleaning products might justify limited higher mark-ups across the board but the CMA said pharmacies should not be applying these disproportionately to essential items “unless the additional costs specifically relate to the sale of those products”.

The letter said pharmacies should ensure their prices “do not include higher than usual mark-ups, when compared to their pre-coronavirus mark-ups for those products and their mark-ups more generally”.

The CMA set up a coronavirus taskforce in the early days of the pandemic and has been collecting complaints from consumers throughout lockdown. It has warned companies it will take action if they are found to be cashing in on items that are vital for many people.

In April, it sent advisory or warning letters to 187 firms after receiving 2,500 complaints about large price rises on food and personal hygiene products such as hand sanitiser. Companies that do not comply can be taken to court.

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