Father and son scammers jailed for selling ‘useless’ covid hand sanitiser

A FATHER and son from a village near Thornbury have been jailed for fraud after selling a hand sanitiser during the pandemic which was described as “useless”by an expert.

William Irving, aged 69, and his son Alexander, 35, both of Woodend Lane in Hill, were both given prison sentences of two years and two months at Bristol Crown Court yesterday by a judge who condemned their “callous profiteering”.

Sold for £10 per 100ml bottle at start of lockdown

The court heard that during March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, the pair started to produce and sell a product called Shield Hand Sanitiser for up to £10 per 100ml bottle, from their business Aquatic Chemicals Limited, based at a unit at Woodlands Farm, near Berkeley.

The labels claimed the liquid had an alcohol content of 70%, could “kill 99.9% of germs”, was “effective against Coronavirus” and had been laboratory tested by the World Health Organisation.

Gel ‘did not smell of alcohol’

South Gloucestershire Council said that almost immediately its trading standards department began to receive complaints from businesses and consumers who were “suspicious about the effectiveness of the product”, with many complaining it was “fake and did not smell of alcohol”.

A council spokesperson said: “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.”

The council contacted customers including shops, wholesalers, a charity and a housing association.

More than 1,300 bottles were removed from sale.

The council said after the Irvings knew trading standards were investigating them, a retailer cancelled a payment of £9,600 made to ACL for an order of 2,000 bottles of the sanitiser that had already been delivered – but the pair never pursued the money or tried to get the 2,000 bottles back.

Product was ‘useless as a hand sanitiser’ – professor

Samples of the sanitiser were analysed by experts for their alcohol content, with what the council described as “startling” results: most contained less than 1% alcohol and the highest found in a sample was 14.69%, well below the minimum of 60% needed for a sanitiser to be effective.  

Further analysis by Leicester University associate professor in clinical microbiology Professor Primrose Freestone found that “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 said the product “would be useless as a hand sanitiser and should never have been marketed as such.”

Fraudsters made at least £95,000 in two weeks

In July 2020 trading standards and police raided ACL’s premises and found evidence that during two weeks in March 2020 they made minimum sales of 24,515 bottles of Shield Hand Sanitiser, bringing in a recorded income of about £95,000 plus an unknown amount of cash sales.

The council spokesperson added: “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.”

The council prosecuted the Irvings for fraudulent trading and they both admitted the charges in January last year, before applying for permission to withdraw their pleas, claiming they had been under pressure to plead guilty.

However their applications were rejected in February this year by Judge Michael Cullum, who also sentenced them.

‘Preying on public fears’

The judge 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 added that William Irving in particular knew the importance of proper labelling, but told him: “Lying might be said to be your natural bedfellow.”

A Proceeds of Crime Act hearing will be held in July to recover money and assets gained by the pair.

After the case, council trading standards service manager Shaun Fudge 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 overstated.”