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Sports Direct's Mike Ashley apologises for handling of coronavirus shutdown

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley outside the Sports Direct headquarters in Shirebrook, Derbyshire. (AP)

Mike Ashley, the billionaire founder of Sports Direct, has written an open letter apologising for his company’s handling of the coronavirus shutdown.

“Given what has taken place over the last few days, I thought it was necessary to address and apologise for much of what has been reported across various media outlets regarding my personal actions and those of the Frasers Group business,” Ashley wrote in a letter sent to media on Friday.

The apology follows criticism of Sports Direct’s handling of the shutdown, which was ordered by the government on Monday.

Sports Direct initially told staff to report to work on Tuesday, arguing the business was in “essential” category as it helps keep the nation fit. Sports Direct backtracked on that plans following criticism but instead hiked the price of some sports equipment on its online shops.

Read more: Sports Direct hikes online prices after U-turn on store closures

Then on Wednesday, Frasers Group (FRAS.L), which owns Sports Direct, published a letter it had sent to Cabinet minister Michael Gove calling on him to clarify that the company had sought the government’s guidance about opening.

The moves have drawn criticism from politicians. Rachel Reeves, chair of the influential Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee, wrote to Ashley on Wednesday to clarify how he was protecting staff from Covid-19 and said he should “step up” during the national crisis.

Labour MP Chi Onwurah also asked Boris Johnson about Mike Ashley’s actions during Prime Minister’s Question time, suggesting Sports Direct was not “doing the right thing.”

“The instruction to the gentleman in question and indeed every business is to follow what the government has said, to obey the rules or to expect the consequences,” Johnson said in response.

Read more: Sports Direct and JD Wetherspoon bosses told to 'step up'

Ashley said in Friday’s open letter he would “never have acted against [the government’s] advice” but admitted “our communications to our employees and the public on this was poor.”

He added that the letter sent to Michael Gove was “ill-judged and poorly timed, when they clearly had much greater pressures than ours to deal with.”

“I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days,” Ashley wrote. “We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future.

“I strongly encourage everyone to follow the government’s advice, stay safe and healthy through these challenging times, not least my employees.”

Ashley repeated an offer to help the NHS deliver supplies and thanked his staff, the government, and the health service for their handling of the crisis.

Read more: Sports Direct offers to deliver NHS supplies in its lorries

“There has been no dress rehearsal for what we as a nation are currently tackling,” Ashley wrote.

“We are working very hard to save our business, so that we can continue to be one of the biggest employers on the UK high street once this pandemic has passed.”

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