Marks & Spencer in row over £11.50-a-bottle hand sanitiser

Marks & Spencer has been accused of exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic by selling bottles of hand sanitiser for twice as much as equivalents elsewhere.

With demand for sanitiser surging during the lockdown as people have been encouraged to wash their hands regularly, the supermarket chain advertised 500ml bottles in stores for £11.50.

Coronavirus: should everyone be wearing face masks?

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance. 

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work..

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

M&S said the sanitisers were initially priced at £15 by mistake but the new £11.50 cost is still significantly more than similar products sold elsewhere. Another brand’s bottle of the same amount of hand sanitiser is advertised for sale at Boots for just £4.15 with a different 250ml one priced at £2, while Superdrug offers 300ml of hand gel for £3.49.

M&S’s pricing has prompted indignation from customers, while Labour’s shadow business and consumer minister, Lucy Powell, warned it was unacceptable for businesses to exploit the pandemic to “line their pockets”.

It comes after it emerged that the country’s competition watchdog has lobbied Downing Street for emergency powers to crack down on over-inflated prices for key items during the coronavirus outbreak, highlighting that existing laws are not sufficient. The Competition and Markets Authority received 21,000 complaints between 10 March and 19 April related to the pandemic, including grievances about price rises. The average price hike in reports was 130% but in the case of hand sanitisers it reached 367%.

In recent weeks, shoppers have shared pictures on social media of the Turkish-made “Belux instant hand sanitizer” advertised on M&S shelves, expressing disappointment at its high cost.

Elaine Hanan, 55, a former CEO who now works as a consultant in the travel industry, only discovered the cost of the hand sanitiser she bought at an M&S in Reigate, Surrey, after looking at her receipt when she arrived home.

She questioned the supermarket’s integrity over the pricing, sending a message to the firm’s Twitter account last month saying: “I have to say I am in shock. I was delighted to see hand sanitizer… took two, one for me and one for my daughter with a 7 week old baby. Thought bill was high – so checked when home to find you charged £11.50 for ONE hand sanitizer. Where is the integrity?”

Hanan, who usually lives in Spain but was staying with her daughter to help with her newborn when lockdown hit, told the Guardian: “I was and still am horrified. In Reigate there’s an M&S and a Morrisons, and Morrisons had some hand sanitiser about a week later for half the price.

“M&S are always good quality but usually reasonably priced. With hand sanitiser, you can’t really improve on quality so they’re not adding any value to the product and the process. It just gives the impression that you’re ripping the consumer off.”

Another shopper, Paul Anderson, said he “couldn’t believe the price” and tweeted a picture of the hand sanitisers on a shelf on 15 May.

In March, Boris Johnson suggested the government could bring in new laws to crackdown on profiteering during the pandemic. Labour is understood to be looking at ways to strengthen consumer protection in any upcoming legislation. Powell said: “It’s clear that some businesses are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to line their pockets. This is unacceptable and companies should behave responsibly. It’s vital that ministers crack down on profiteering during this crisis as the Prime Minister promised, and give the Competition and Market Authority the powers they need to stand up for consumers.”

James Daley, of consumer campaign group Fairer Finance, added: “You wouldn’t expect a reputable retailer like M&S to be indulging these kinds of low-level tactics. If anything, you’d expect them to be leading the way, perhaps even taking a hit selling things like hand sanitiser as a loss leader trying to help people out at this time. It sticks in the throat a bit.”

M&S said: “Because of high demand, we temporarily introduced a branded product (Belux) into our stores to help customers access the products they need at this time. Priced at £2.30 per 100ml it costs slightly more than our own brand product but is in line with and cheaper than many branded products on the market.

“The branded product was mispriced in store for a couple of hours on 23 April and was quickly corrected and any customer who wanted a refund could have one.”

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