Care providers have warned they are “swimming in shark infested waters” after experiencing a “100-fold increase” in companies offering personal protective equipment (PPE) at extortionate prices.

PPE items like face masks, gloves, aprons and hand sanitiser are crucial for care providers, who need to protect their staff and those they support from contracting coronavirus.

While shortages caused by global supply and demand issues during the Covid-19 crisis have fuelled price increases across the board, some companies are thought to be taking advantage of the urgent need for PPE.

Care providers have also reported being “targeted” by companies with unsolicited emails selling PPE at inflated prices. Scottish Care, which represents independent care providers, confirmed that dozens of its members had reported such issues and that it had seen a “100-fold increase” in companies offering PPE at high prices.

Having sought quotes from around 120 companies during the coronavirus pandemic, the care body has set up a list of PPE providers to help its members find items at reasonable prices.

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Tony Gill, the managing director of the Real Care Agency in East Kilbride, said that he had struggled to source PPE from his usual suppliers and “had no choice” but to order overpriced PPE. “We have to do all we can to keep our care workers safe,” he said. “I’ve got staff who are putting themselves on the line.”

Scottish Care said that while PPE was understandably more expensive now than in normal times, it had also seen “massive profiteering” from some companies. “In any normal time, a care provider would use certain PPE, but around three quarters of the stuff is that which they would never normally use, because of the nature of this virus,” said Dr Donald Macaskill, Scottish Care’s chief executive.

While Scottish care providers can turn to the NHS supply line and some local authorities for emergency provision, Macaskill said they were still ultimately responsible for sourcing their own PPE. “Sometimes people like Tony have no option but to pay ridiculous money in order to keep their staff and residents safe,” he added.

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Calls to tackle ‘price gouging’

Gill warned that companies were engaging in “blatant profiteering on a commercial scale”, which had made sourcing PPE for care providers and the wider public like “swimming in shark infested waters”. He called for emergency “price gouging laws” and for more powers to be given to local government trading standards departments.

While the UK government scrapped the 20 per cent VAT on PPE during the coronavirus pandemic, the general public have also been hit by profiteering on other key items. The consumer group Which? found a 1,000 per cent surge in the price of products like cleaning spray by some third-party online sellers.

The UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently urged ministers to give it emergency powers to tackle price gougers, citing over 21,000 Covid-19-related complaints between 10 March and 19 April. The call for powers was backed by the SNP, who said Westminster had “totally failed to tackle price gouging effectively”.

The party’s consumer affairs spokesperson, Patricia Gibson MP, said it was “nothing short of disgraceful that some retailers are brazenly seeking to make an excessive profit on high demand products in the middle of a global health crisis.”

She added: “Preying on vulnerable people who feel they have no choice but to pay ridiculously inflated prices is immoral. The UK government must listen to consumer groups and take immediate action to stop this shameful practice.

“While online retailers such as Amazon and eBay have taken some welcome steps to allow for the reporting and removal of products being sold at highly inflated prices, it is clear that these do not go far enough to stop this reckless profiteering.”

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The CMA said that its Covid-19 taskforce “continues to scrutinise reports of potentially harmful sales practices, including inflated price rises” and would use its existing powers to the “maximum possible extent.”

While the “vast majority” of companies were not profiteering, the CMA said it had evidence that some “may have broken the law”.

A CMA spokesperson said: “We’ve already written to hundreds of businesses asking them to explain their inflated prices, and what we find out will help us decide whether and where we can take further action.

“Along with our existing powers, we have also advised the government on options for emergency time-limited legislation that could give a better chance of dealing with this type of problem.”

Community initiatives taking on the profiteers

Scottish Care said that alongside existing PPE providers and businesses who have turned to PPE production during the pandemic, altruistic individuals and communities have also sprung into action.

One recent example involves two students from the University of St Andrews, who are taking on the profiteers. Cogan Wade and Frederik Filz von Reiterdank said they were appalled at the inflated prices of face masks they sought to buy for their volunteering charity, StudentsAgainstCorona.

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Cogan Wade (left) and Frederik Filz von Reiterdank (right) with their first shipment of 26,000 3-ply masks

In an effort to freeze out the the price gougers, they have used contacts in China and Hong Kong to set up Mask Bros, and supply PPE at zero mark up. The operation supplies only products made specifically for non-medical public use in an effort to not deprive healthcare staff of vital PPE.

Wade, the first St Andrews student to contract Covid-19, said he found one shop selling single masks for £1.80, despite being able to source the exact same ones himself for 29 pence. “We found out how hard it is to find a reliable supplier for smaller orders of PPE,” he said. “And the ones that we could find charged us extortionate prices.”

Mask Bros then contacted European import and export companies who connected them with “reliable” PPE suppliers. “We figured that more people must be struggling to acquire masks so they can safeguard themselves, their families, friends and customers,” said Wade.

“With the Scottish and UK governments now advising the wearing of face masks in enclosed spaces, it shouldn’t be so hard for the public to find quality protection at an affordable price.”

Mask Bros said it supplies PPE at cost price plus a small flat fee to cover shipping, website, packaging, inspection and staffing costs, and in order to scale and offer more PPE at lower prices.

Header image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

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