All companies are scrambling to respond to the challenges brought on by the
COVID-19 pandemic and in various sectors cooperation between competitors is
seen as part of the solution.
However, cooperation — or in some cases contact or information exchange —
between competitors potentially raises significant issues under EU and UK
antitrust/competition law. Fines and third-party damages claims against
companies, and criminal penalties for individuals, can result.
Recognising that these limitations may be counterproductive in the
exceptional circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic,
governments and antitrust regulators in the EU and UK have responded over
the past week by flexing antitrust law in ways seldom seen before.
Companies that genuinely need to cooperate with competitors — in a manner
beneficial to their customers — now have real possibilities to do so,
althought they must still analyse their specific situation before going
ahead and take advice. Risks remain.
In the UK, on 19 March 2020, the government
that it will formally waive UK competition law (as contained in the
Competition Act 1998) for a limited period so as to allow supermarket
retailers to share data with each other on stock levels, cooperate to keep
shops open, or share distribution depots and delivery vans. The waiver will
also allow retailers to pool staff with one another to help meet demand.
Further, retailers will be able to agree on common specifications for
products to bolster food production.
The waiver will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement,
so supermarkets have been warned not to go too far and will still need to
This statutory change was backed-up by a remarkable announcement on the
same day from the UK antitrust regulator – the Competition and Markets
Authority (CMA). The CMA
that where agreements are not covered by that formal legal relaxation (i.e., in all other sectors of the economy), it may turn a blind
eye. According to its announcement:
“… [T]he CMA has no intention of taking competition law enforcement
action against cooperation between businesses or rationing of products
to the extent that this is necessary to protect consumers
— for example, by ensuring security of supplies.
At the same time, the CMA will not tolerate unscrupulous businesses
exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This
includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business
strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the
The CMA therefore effectively provided a further nonstatutory waiver in
certain circumstances, while similarly warning that even where businesses
can take advantage of it, they should not go too far.
The CMA has taken further steps to respond, in particular by setting up a
dedicated COVID-19 taskforce. In part, the taskforce will:
“Advise government on how to ensure competition law does not stand in
the way of legitimate measures that protect public health and support
the supply of essential goods and services. It will also advise on
further policy and legislative measures to ensure markets function as
well as possible in the coming months.”
There is therefore clearly scope for more lobbying of the UK government for
additional statutory waivers of competition law. The CMA is seeking
submissions to the taskforce (email@example.com), but companies considering cooperation or contact with competitors should
take advice before engaging with the CMA.
Similar provisions are being adopted in other countries. For example, on 18
March 2020, the Norwegian government
that the transportation sector has been granted a three-month temporary
waiver from the application of Norwegian competition law. The waiver makes
it possible, in particular, to continue the transportation of passengers
and goods in Norway to secure the population’s access to necessary goods
and services. Norway is part of the EEA (not the EU), but its rules are
effectively the same.
This waiver only allows what is strictly necessary to achieve this aim and
agreements and practices covered by the exemption must, to the greatest
extent possible, further the efficient use of resources and the interests
of consumers. That will be a guiding principle in all similar situations in
the EU and UK.
The German government and antitrust regulator are also reportedly prepared
to allow extensive cooperation between supermarket retailers, between their
suppliers, and between retailers and suppliers — if necessary to ensure
supplies to consumers.
Other sectors may be able to justify similar cooperation, but — as the UK
government and CMA have made clear — they will need to take care. Companies
will not be permitted to use the current situation as cover for unjustified
activity; that will remain illegal.
Therefore, straightforward cartel and similar anti-competitive activity,
such as agreeing to price increases with no other benefit, will without
doubt (save in the most exceptional circumstances) continue to be
problematic. As an example, the Polish Competition Authority has announced
that it is investigating two wholesalers that allegedly terminated
contracts with hospitals to obtain significantly higher prices for certain
products. One of the concerns is that the wholesalers effectively engaged
in illegal price fixing through these actions.
The risk of regulatory enforcement remains. In addition, even where an
antitrust regulator turns a blind eye, private third parties have the
ability to challenge behaviour through the courts. Private antitrust
litigation can stop cooperation and even give rise to damages awards. Only
a formal statutory waiver gives rise to protection from third-party claims.
Antitrust law has therefore been relaxed in some circumstances, but risks
remain and competitors need to tread carefully before cooperating or
exchanging information in the EU or UK.
For more information, please see McGuireWoods’ related alerts:
We will provide more detail on these topics in future alerts.
For questions or additional guidance on these recommendations and other COVID-19 considerations, please contact any of the McGuireWoods COVID-19 Response Team members.