An MP has asked the Government what action is being taken to ensure retailers and suppliers do not exploit the coronavirus outbreak to make a “quick profit”.

MP for Hendon Matthew Offord wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week after hearing that some retailers were allegedly using the epidemic to increase the prices of essential items – including hand sanitiser.

His letter points out some of the products could help control the epidemic – and although he is normally against intervening in the free market, we are currently in “exceptional times”.

Dr Offord told the Prime Minister he had been contacted by several constituents who had raised concerns over the price hikes.

The MP said he contacted one retailer about the claims and was told some products were in short supply. The retailer added that wholesalers had increased their prices, so retailers had raised their prices in order to sell at a profit.

Dr Offord’s letter also warns price reductions for multiple purchases could encourage bulk buying and worsen the supply problems.

The MP adds: “Many people are being prevented from taking the very precautions the Government is encouraging as they cannot either buy or afford the items required.

“I therefore should be grateful to know what action the Government is taking to ensure that suppliers and retailers are not permitted to exploit the current crisis to make a ‘quick profit’, and are not encouraging stockpiling of essential items by offering discounts.”

On Friday (March 20), the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a special taskforce in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The team has been tasked with spotting harmful sales and pricing practices as they emerge. It will warn firms suspected of exploiting the exceptional circumstances – and people’s vulnerability – through unjustifiable prices or misleading claims.

The CMA has already contacted traders and platforms over the excessive pricing of hand sanitiser.

The taskforce will be able to take enforcement action if there is evidence firms have breached competition or consumer protection law and they fail to respond to warnings.

CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said: “This is obviously a time when we all have to behave responsibly to protect our fellow citizens, and particularly those who are most vulnerable.

“We urge retailers to behave responsibly in the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“But if they do not, our taskforce is monitoring market developments to enable us to intervene as quickly as possible. We have a range of options at our disposal, from warnings to enforcement action to seeking emergency powers.

“We hope that such action will not be necessary, but we will do whatever is required to stop a small minority of businesses that may seek to exploit the present situation.”

A government spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has been clear that we do not want to see profiteering of any kind. We are speaking with retailers daily to address this and will take action where necessary.

“The Competition and Markets Authority has created a COVID-19 taskforce to address and remedy the concerns that some businesses are exploiting consumers through harmful sales and pricing practices. The CMA continue to monitor market developments and provide early intervention.”