Sports Direct has performed a U-turn on keeping its shops open during the coronavirus lockdown following a backlash over its plans.
The government has ordered all UK shops selling non-essential goods to close.
Sports Direct initially said it would remain open as it was “uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible”.
But after widespread criticism, it now says it will not open “until we are given the go-ahead by the government”.
It had argued that it provided an essential service. Bosses at the company said the sports equipment it sells can be used to exercise at home at a time when gyms have been closed.
In a letter written by Frasers Group, which owns Sports Direct and Evans Cycles, finance chief Chris Wootton had said: “Thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this (in accordance with the government’s current social distancing guidance).”
“There is no one else that has the range of product and range of stores to make this reasonably accessible for the whole population.”
Bicycle shops are on the list of retailers that are allowed to stay open during the shutdown.
The move had been questioned by Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the trade union Usdaw, which represents shop workers in the UK.
He told the BBC’s Today programme: “I can’t see how it [Sports Direct] is an essential service. It’s a sports clothing company.
“In my mind, an essential service would include food and medicine and the supply chain around that,” as well as the National Health Service, he said.
Sports Direct’s decision to stay open despite the new government restrictions also saw a backlash on social media.
Ian Lavery MP, chair of the Labour Party, told the company’s founder Mike Ashley to “take some responsibility”.
Which retailers will close?
A number of High Street retailers and food chains, such as Ikea, John Lewis and Next, had already shut prior to Mr Johnson’s announcement on Monday evening, leaving tens of thousands of people temporarily without work.
Others such as WH Smith and B&Q had previously vowed to stay open while adhering to stricter social distancing policies.
Mr Johnson said: “I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs.
“And that’s why we have produced a huge and unprecedented programme of support both for workers and for business.”
- Supermarkets and other food shops
- Petrol stations
- Bicycle shops
- Home and hardware stores
- Laundrettes and dry cleaners
- Pet shops
- Post Offices
Businesses will still be able to take online orders and deliver items to people’s homes.
The government this week said it would pay the wages of employees unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic, in a move aimed at protecting people’s jobs.
It will pay 80% of salary for staff who are kept on by their employer, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month.
Many retail and hospitality firms have warned the pandemic could see them collapse, wiping out thousands of jobs, as life in the UK is put on hold.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of retail lobby group the British Retail Consortium, said many shops had already closed temporarily.
“Others have continued to provide essential products and services to their customers, both from physical stores and online.
“Any retailers that remain open will be following the very latest government public health guidance to ensure they do everything they can to ensure the safety of customers and staff.”
The government had already ordered pubs, restaurants and cafes to close amid concerns that people were ignoring its advice to keep social contact to a minimum.
Monday night’s announcement came as the number of UK deaths from coronavirus hit 335, while there were 6,650 confirmed cases.
Many of the big brands to have already announced closures have promised to pay their staff for several weeks until the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme kicks in.
However, concern is growing about the millions of self-employed and gig economy workers who will be forced to rely on benefits in the absence of targeted support.
Neil Carberry, boss of lobby group the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said the announcement reinforced the need for businesses and workers to access government support measures “as quickly as possible”.
“With the economy and jobs market in lockdown, all employers can do is stand by their staff as far as possible and reap the benefits during the post-crisis comeback,” he added.