The price of protective face masks at wholesalers have risen dramatically at times over the last few weeks during the coronavirus pandemic. Boxes of the government-recommended fluid repellent face masks supplied by pharmacy wholesalers have increased in price by as much as 387.5% in some cases.

The Pharmacist spoke to the Wholesaler Distribution Association (WDA) to find out why.

One pharmacy wholesaler was reportedly selling fluid repellent surgical masks at £39 a box recently, the same box they were only selling for £8 two weeks earlier. Pharmacists have accused most pharmacy wholesalers of similar hikes in pricing, some accusing major wholesalers of profiteering and price gouging at a time of crisis.

Pharmacy teams have been told by Public Health England (PHE) that they must wear a fluid repellent surgical masks if they are 'working in an area with possible or confirmed cases' and are 'unable to maintain 2 metres social distance'.

‘It felt like daylight robbery,’ said one contractor, who had been trying to purchase some face masks for his team. ‘I contacted [a wholesaler] and they said ‘yes we have mask availability’ but it was £50 a box. They’re clearly profiteering from this,’ he told the Pharmacist. ‘This is just not the support from wholesalers we were looking for.’

Other pharmacy teams have commented on social media.

Why have PPE prices been so high?

In early April, the government supplied pharmacy wholesalers with stocks of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including fluid repellent surgical masks, from PHE's stockpile.

‘The masks were extremely cheap’, Martin Sawyer, executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA), told the Pharmacist. ‘Therefore, wholesalers sold them to pharmacies very cheaply.’

However, in recent weeks, pharmacy wholesalers have ‘almost completely run out’ of the PPE supplied by the government, the HDA has said.

On 29 April, the HDA said that the body was waiting for more PPE to come in stock and advised pharmacies to contact their local resilience forum (LRF) for the recommended fluid-resistant (Type IIR) surgical masks if their supplies were low.

This means that wholesalers have had to look elsewhere to purchase their stocks of PPE. ‘Many have been getting stocks from other countries, which have cost the wholesalers a lot more. Much more than the prices PHE were charging,’ Mr Sawyer told the Pharmacist. They have needed to pass these prices on to customers.

Yesterday (6 May), the Department of Health (DH) told the Pharmacist that they could not confirm when wholesalers would be granted access to more PPE stock, but that current government stocks are being supplied to pharmacists through Local Resilience Forums (LRFs).

They also said: 'Due to the global demand for PPE, the flow of some items of PPE stock can be intermittent.'

Are wholesalers profiteering?

‘Wholesalers cannot profit off the supplies given to them from PHE,’ Mr Sawyer explained.

‘Any Public Health England stockpile, as you might imagine, is a public thing that is monitored very closely. Wholesalers have to report back to PHE how much they sold the stock to and to which pharmacy.’

When it comes to the PPE stock pharmacies have bought privately, there is more wiggle room when it comes to pricing.

‘It's a competitive market so the pharmacist might have more than one wholesaler to choose from - so prices will vary,’ Mr Sawyer said.

However, the likelihood that any wholesaler is making a substantial profit from this PPE is minimal.

In his view, it would be ‘crazy’ for any wholesaler to ‘charge outrageous mark-ups on these sorts of things,’ he said. This is because the companies are under scrutiny – with the public, including pharmacists, are ‘free to report anything they deem as overpriced to the competition markets authority’, he said. The CMA has announced that they are actively looking into any ‘inflated’ pricing.

'A spokesperson from McKesson UK – AAH's parent company - told the Pharmacist: 'We received a very small allocation of masks from the DHSC at Easter and ran out almost immediately. 

'We are working with the HDA to understand when new stocks will be released to ensure that all community pharmacies have access to the protective equipment that they need.

'We have sourced protective masks through our own suppliers at a cost price significantly greater than the DHSC masks. These are available for AAH customers to order. The market price we have had to pay to source these products has risen considerably due to the unprecedented global demand for these products.'

Last month, Pharmacy staff were told by the DH to treat potential Covid-19 patients with pre-used facemasks.