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Hand sanitiser price doubles, face mask shortage amid coronavirus panic

Pharmacy4Less at Melbourne Central in the CBD was selling Ultra Health Medical 500ml hand sanitiser for $15.99 on Tuesday. Other retailers are selling the same hand sanitiser for $7.94. Smoke masks were available at Pharmacy4Less for $7.

Hand sanitiser selling for $15.99 in Melbourne Central on Tuesday.

Hand sanitiser selling for $15.99 in Melbourne Central on Tuesday.Credit:Michael Fowler

The store manager, who asked not to be named, said both products were bought after their normal hand sanitisers, which retail for about $5, sold out last week.

“We’re making a small margin on the sanitiser,” the manager said.

“The price increase is just being passed on through suppliers, and that gets passed on to us … the smoke masks are not the normal ones we’d sell, so we’ve had to again go to a new supplier and they’re selling at that price.”

Hand sanitiser supplier Ultra Health Medical said it had warned its wholesale customers that prices will likely increase through February.

The company’s sales manager said they would soon have to start charging wholesale customers the recommended retail price, which is about triple the wholesale price, to avoid stock being exhausted or sent overseas.

“It’s risk management, rather than profiteering,” said the manager, who did not want to be named.

“We are inundated with orders. We could wipe out the whole warehouse in one day, but we can’t let that happen. We’re trying to control the market. Every day we have emails from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. They want to buy container loads.

“If we sell normal prices and run out of stock, what are we going to do with our staff, our running costs?”

The sales manager said his company was expecting the coronavirus panic to subside and “everything to come back to normal” on February 25.

“If after 25 February it’s back to normal, the market will be flooded with the product and the price will drop like no tomorrow, or if there’s not enough the price could go up more for two or three months,” he said.

“After SARS, prices for masks went from $1 down to 30c per mask, because the market was flooded.”

The Victorian Health Department said washing hands with soap is as effective as hand sanitiser, and hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds.

There have been four confirmed coronavirus cases in Victoria, with 14 in Australia.

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Chemist Warehouse stores have been low on masks since early January when bushfire smoke shrouded Melbourne, while hand sanitiser stocks began to dwindle about two weeks ago.

“We’ve had about 40-50 customers per employee, per day, approaching us asking for face masks,” said one Chemist Warehouse employee, who did not wish to be named.

“When people see we’ve run out, they get more scared and panicked. They say ‘oh you’ve run out – should I be worried now’? How serious is the virus?’.

“Everyone is scaring one another.”

Authorities’ current advice is that anyone who has returned from China from February 1 should self-isolate for 14 days, along with anybody who has come into contact with a confirmed case or visited the Hubei province, which remains in lockdown.

A spokesman for Sigma, which owns the Amcal and Guardian pharmacy brands, said Victorian stores had been “pretty much cleaned out”.

Terry White pharmacy said “most” of its pharmacies still had hand sanitiser in stock but it was “certainly selling fast”, while an Amcal employee said stores were running low but had managed to restock in recent days.

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