Thought leadership

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”.

Sports Direct’s chief financial officer, Chris Wootton, said the chain was contacting the government “at all levels” to confirm whether its shops were deemed to provide an essential service.

But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Tuesday morning that he could not see “any justification” for it to stay open.

“The key thing we need to do is make sure people wherever possible stay at home. Yes it’s important people exercise but that should be done once a day and it’s a basic thing,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“People can walk, run or cycle, they should, but there is no reason for a store like Sports Direct to remain open.”

The retailer 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, Mr 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.

But Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the shop workers’ trade union Usdaw, 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 initial plan to stay open drew widespread backlash on social media.

Ian Lavery MP, chair of the Labour Party, told the company’s founder and chief executive Mike Ashley to “take some responsibility”.


A number of High Street retailers and food chains had already shut prior to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday evening, which set out strict new measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus.


The government has now issued a list of which “essential” retailers are allowed to stay open. They include:

  • Supermarkets and other food shops
  • Pharmacies
  • Petrol stations
  • Newsagents
  • Bicycle shops
  • Home and hardware stores
  • Laundrettes and dry cleaners
  • Garages
  • Pet shops
  • Post Offices
  • Banks

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.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday:

  • A closely-watched economic surveyindicated there had been “record slump” in UK business activity in March as emergency public health measures dealt a “severe blow” to the economy. The compilers of the survey said the figures suggested “a recession of a scale we have not seen in modern history is looking increasingly likely”
  • Waitrose became the first UK supermarket to announce it would limit the number of people who could be in a store at any one time
  • B&Q said it would close temporarily to prepare its stores for selling “essential products”
  • The boss of the Wetherspoon pub chain said its staff should feel free to take jobs at supermarketssuch as Tesco while its pubs remain closed.

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.

“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,” she said.

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.

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