Covid hand sanitiser fraud pair sent to prison

A box filled with bottles of seized fake hand sanitiser

A father and son living near Thornbury were both given prison sentences at Bristol Crown Court yesterday (8 April) for defrauding customers of their business at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic over a hand sanitiser product which was described by an expert as being “useless”.

William Irving (69) and Alexander Irving (35) both of Woodend Lane, Hill, South Gloucestershire, were sentenced to two years and two months each in prison by HHJ Cullum for what he described as their “callous profiteering”.

The pair ran Aquatic Chemicals Limited (ACL) from a unit at Woodlands Farm near Berkeley in Gloucestershire, and during March 2020, at the outset of the Covid pandemic, started to produce and sell a product called Shield Hand Sanitiser for up to £10 per 100ml bottle.

The product labelling claimed an alcohol content of 70%, that it could ‘kill 99.9% of germs’, was ‘effective against Coronavirus’ and indicated it had been laboratory tested by the World Health Organisation.

During March 2020 South Gloucestershire Trading Standards began to receive complaints from businesses and consumers who were suspicious about the effectiveness of the product, many of whom complained it was fake and did not smell of alcohol.

Trading Standards initially tried to engage with the Irvings about the product they were seemingly producing and selling in huge numbers at a time when there was unprecedented demand for hand sanitisers and the country was entering into lockdown. However, the pair refused to engage and a criminal investigation began.

Customers of Shield Hand Sanitiser including retailers, wholesalers, a charity and a housing association were all contacted and over 1,300 bottles of the product were removed from sale. Suspicions were further aroused after the Irvings knew Trading Standards were investigating them, when one retailer reported successfully cancelling a payment of £9,600 made to ACL for an order of 2,000 bottles of Shield Hand Sanitiser. The order had been delivered to him but no one ever pursued the money or even the return of the 2,000 bottles.

The concerns about Shield Hand Sanitiser were justified when a representative sample was analysed by experts for its alcohol content – to be effective hand sanitisers require a minimum alcohol content of 60%. The results were startling – the majority of samples contained less than 1% alcohol and the maximum alcohol content in any one sample was 14.69%.

These results were further analysed by Professor Primrose Freestone, Associate Professor in Clinical Microbiology at the University of Leicester, who concluded “the combined alcohol levels (ethanol and propanol) in all of the samples are too low to be effective as an antimicrobial agent against either bacteria or viruses.” She further stated that the product “would be useless as a hand sanitiser and should never have been marketed as such.”

Trading standards raided the premises of ACL in July 2020 with Police and secured further evidence of offending by the Irvings which showed that during just two weeks in March 2020 they made minimum sales of 24,515 bottles of Shield Hand Sanitiser, generating an income of approximately £95,000 plus unquantifiable cash sales.

During the course of the investigation William Irving even tried to convince Trading Standards that the Shield Hand Sanitiser had been produced by an unidentified individual who had rented a unit from him at his premises but had left it there, so he simply decided to sell it all.

Due to the seriousness of the situation, the Irvings were prosecuted for fraudulent trading offences under the Companies Act by South Gloucestershire Council and initially both pleaded guilty to them at Bristol Crown Court during January 2023.

They both subsequently applied to the court to withdraw their guilty pleas claiming they had been under pressure to plead guilty at the time. Both applications failed on 9 February 2024 at Bristol Crown Court before HHJ Cullum.

In sentencing yesterday, HHJ Cullum said it was necessary for him to re-visit the time of lockdown in 2020 when there was widespread fear of death and serious illness and hygiene and social distancing were part of everyday developing government instructions. He said the Irvings clearly knew the product was not what it purported to be but persisted in “preying on public fears of an unprecedented national emergency.”

He further noted that William Irving in particular knew of the importance of proper labelling and honesty regarding the products he sold, but concluded that “lying might be said to be your natural bedfellow.”

The pair will now be also be dealt with under the Proceeds of Crime Act at a later hearing on 1 July 2024.

Shaun Fudge, service manager for Trading Standards at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “William and Alexander Irving have been imprisoned for a large-scale fraud which deceived the public at a time of national crisis. They blatantly profiteered from a ‘useless’ product that was sold at a premium price due to unprecedented demand for hand sanitisers. The importance of this case in bringing such actions to justice cannot be over-stated.”