In the middle of the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes comes some familiar news. There are always some who make a profit out of public adversity. So step forward Bill Ackman a hedge fund manager who according to The Guardian (26 March) has claimed his firm made $2.6bn (£2.2bn) betting that the coronavirus outbreak would cause a market crash. And this barely a week after telling US companies: “Hell is coming”. It seems that he took advantage of bond market turmoil to make almost 100 times his original outlay of $27m on bets on market movements. Meanwhile in the UK some 5 million self-employed workers are still awaiting to hear what kind of financial support they will get. After much delay, a government announcement is expected sometime today.
But it’s not just hedge fund managers who are making massive financial windfalls. A few days earlier the General Medical Council (GMC) raised concerns that some doctors were “exploiting patients’ vulnerability” and making hundreds of thousands of pounds selling private coronavirus tests to people worried that they may have been infected with the virus. The GMC said no doctor should try to “profit from the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic”.
The warning followed reports that Dr Mark Ali, who runs a clinic called the Private Harley Street Clinic, made a £1.7m profit selling £2.5m worth of tests in less than a week. The Sunday Times claimed that Ali boasted to a reporter that he had “done quite well actually” selling 6,664 tests for £375 each. According to press reports, the tests Ali sold were bought via a third party from testing centre Randox Laboratories, which sells the tests for £120. The tests have not been approved by Public Health England. Ali denied saying he had made £1.7m profit and when approached by the Guardian, he declined to state how much he had made. It is understood that he claimed he had been misquoted.
Days before Monday’s ‘lock down’ government announcement it was reported that wealthy families desperate to escape the coronavirus crisis in London were fleeing the capital for the country – with some offering up to £50,000-a-month for a rural sanctuary. British estate agents reported that they have been flooded with requests from the super-rich searching for mansions with bunkers, Cotswolds manor houses and uninhabited Caribbean islands to buy.
The story was highlighted in the Financial Times (Shortcuts: self-isolating in style 21/22 March) which reported that clients seeking such retreats have been prepared to double their usual holiday budgets with one booking for a nine bedroom house in the Home Counties fetching £50,000 per week for a three months tenure! It also reported that the Landmark Trust, a charity offering holidays in historic buildings had reported an increase in demand and had taken bookings for the Martello tower, a fort in Aldeburgh, Suffolk with walls more than two metres thick and the China Tower, also known as the Bicton Belvedere, an octagonal castellated Gothic tower built in 1839 and located on the Rolle Estate above the Otter estuary near Sidmouth in Devonshire. The charity emphasises that it has enhanced cleaning at its properties, including the use of virucidal disinfectants. So that’s good to know!
Meanwhile soon to be a back bencher again, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted on 24 March that people are waiting for hours on the #UniversalCredit helpline or placed up to 78,000th in an online queue. Cuts of nearly 50,000 staff from the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) since 2010 have created a failing system even before this crisis. People need financial security if they’re expected to stay home.