Covid-19

Covid-19: Govt launches price-gouging tipline, as ‘essential services’ broadened

The Government has set up a dedicated service for reporting fears of price gouging, as Jacinda Ardern flags the expansion of "essential services"

Kiwis concerned about potential price gouging at supermarkets during the coronavirus lockdown can now report the issue directly to government officials, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

Ardern said the Government did not want any companies to exploit the Covid-19 situation, as it broadened the criteria for "essential services" to cover goods like heaters, fridges and computers.

Speaking to media at her post-Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister said prices at supermarkets had been a topic of significant discussion, along with anecdotal reports of excessive prices.

Government officials had been in daily contact with the major supermarket chains and had found no evidence to support claims of gouging.

However, a dedicated email address - pricewatch@mbie.govt.nz - had been set up by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) so the public could report any cases of concern.

Ardern said price increases for fresh produce could reflect seasonal fluctuations, but in a situation where supermarkets faced less competition and increased demand it was "more important than ever that prices are fair and reasonable".

"No one wants to see anyone take unfair financial advantage from this extraordinary period."

While supermarkets could increase prices if they wanted, they had to make sure they did not fall foul of consumer laws around misleading and deceptive conduct.

Ardern said Cabinet had discussed the issue of Easter trading, amidst calls from some for supermarkets to be allowed to open.

A final decision was likely to be made on Tuesday, with the benefits of improved access weighed against the need for outlets to restock their shelves.

Asked whether the list of essential services could be expanded to include greengrocers or butchers, Ardern said that would undermine the intent of the lockdown to limit unnecessary contact.

New 'essential goods'

However, new guidelines released by MBIE shortly after Ardern's press conference have expanded the list of "essential goods" to include heaters, whiteware and computers, citing "the need for people to safely isolate, stay connected to one another and work or study from home".

In a statement, the ministry said the Government had decided there were essential non-food products which the public should be able to access, such as heaters and blankets to keep people warm, household appliances to replace broken-down items, and computers and tablets to work and study from home.

"If people buy these, then we risk people venturing out of their homes more often."

Businesses had to operate responsibly and sell only essential goods, while the public in turn should "order responsibly, purchasing only those items that are absolutely necessary to facilitate life and work during the lockdown period".

In order to sell the essential goods, businesses could only take orders online or by phone, delivering all items in a contactless way while taking public health measures to protect their staff.

They also had to notify MBIE that they met the conditions and intended to sell essential goods.

"If a business cannot meet these conditions, they should not offer to sell essential goods while the country is at Alert Level 4.

"If businesses are too generous in their interpretation of what is 'essential' or flout these rules, the Government will take further action," MBIE said.

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