A company selling personal protective equipment (PPE) has been accused of "blatant profiteering" after offering an NHS trust the equipment at 825% of the normal price.
CEO of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) Nick Hulme, told ITV News the firm - which he declined to name - offered to sell him coveralls for £16.50 - £14.50 more than the £2 they were in January before the coronavirus outbreak increased demand for PPE.
Mr Hulme said he “didn’t know how they slept at night” as he accused the company of making a profit at the expense of the public.
“Everybody is trying incredibly hard up and down the country to try and support each other through this crisis," he told ITV News.
“How can you possibly think it’s OK to make that sort of profit for your own, how can you make those sorts of profits at the expense of the public?”
Mr Hulme said the business he was talking about was not the only firm trying to “make a fast buck” adding that PPE price hikes during the coronavirus crisis were “happening a lot”.
“I’ve been offered surgical masks at three or four times the price; I’ve been offered FFP3 masks at 10 times the price… It is blatant profiteering, in my opinion,” he said.
Mr Hulme continued: “I get probably get between five and 10 emails a day from various companies saying they can offer me PPE, some of them I don’t trust because they’re not companies that we’ve used before or they’re not on the supply list of the NHS.
“This particular one was a company we’d used before and, although we have seen a hike in some prices, to see coveralls going from £2 as they were in January to £16.50 was outrageous."
The government has come in for mounting criticism over its failure to ensure NHS staff treating coronavirus patients have the protective equipment they need.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said earlier this week that trusts are being forced into “hand-to-mouth” workarounds, including washing single-use gowns and restricting stocks to key areas.
On Wednesday, a plane carrying PPE for NHS workers arrived from Turkey - three days late.
Mr Hulme said it was “a difficult balance” between using the national procurement lines and sourcing PPE through individual companies both in the UK and from abroad to meet demand.
Price increases are not unusual at times of high demand, Mr Hulme said, but he said an exponential hike of this magnitude goes beyond normal market fluctuations.
“But there’s a difference between demand and supply and, a 725% pay hike.
At the moment, he said, ESNEFT was in a position where they were able to refuse to buy the PPE at the inflated price.
"I can understand that if it is more difficult to source raw materials, if the cost of providing the PPE does go up, then obviously that increased cost has to be ultimately met by the consumer, the customer,” he told ITV News.
While the government cannot control prices, having a central provision for PPE ensures supply can be controlled better and huge price hikes are more likely to be avoided.
“I think the only way we can stop it, is that collectively we just don’t use the companies, so they then reduce their prices,” Mr Hulme.
“Of course people are going to try and make a profit,” he continued.
“But on the one hand we’re got extraordinary self-sacrifice and extraordinary donations and volunteers at one end of the spectrum and you’ve got these people who are blatantly profiteering at the other end.
"NHS isn’t a bottomless pit and we are very careful about how we spend our money, we are stewards of the tax payers’ money."
Ipswich MP Tom Hunt told ITV News the company's behaviour at this time of national emergency was "disgraceful" and "grossly socially irresponsible".
"I want to see companies acting in a responsible way and in a way that is in keeping with the public interest right now," the Tory MP said.
"Yes, we live in a free market economy and companies have to make a profit and if they make something they want to see a return on that, but ultimately it doesn’t justify this sort of behaviour."