Sports Direct and Evans Cycles will not open their stores on Tuesday, embarking on a rapid U-turn after a backlash against plans to keep trading despite a UK government lockdown.
Prime minister Boris Johnson ordered non-essential retailers to close down in a broadcast to the country on Monday night, and told the public to stay at home other than in exceptional circumstances.
But Frasers Group, owned by Mike Ashley, wrote to all staff at its Sports Direct and Evans Cycles chains soon after the announcement saying stores would remain open where possible.
A message from chief finance officer Chris Wootton, seen by PA, argued its staff and stores were key to keeping the country healthy while many people are confined to their homes.
It read: “We stock a huge range of sports equipment designed for exercising at home… indeed home fitness is the number one trending topic on social media after coronavirus itself.
“Consequently, we are uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis and thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this.”
But the announcement sparked heavy criticism, with Labour chair Ian Lavery telling Ashley to “take some responsibility” and close down.
Minister Michael Gove told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday morning: “It is clear to me Sports Direct is not essential retail."
Wootton then confirmed a rapid change of course, saying shops would now remain closed until the government said they could re-open.
Wootton said in a statement: “To clarify my earlier message, we will not open our Sports Direct or Evans Stores to the public, even though government policy excludes “bicycle shops” from closure, until we are given the go-ahead by the government.
“Please note we are contacting them at all levels including attempting to get confirmation from the prime minister.”
Wootton had already written a letter to the prime minister asking for clarity on whether stores were allowed to open.
There is significant uncertainty about the government’s advice, with social media flooded with questions about which stores can trade and who has to go into work. The government has now released an official list of the kind of shops that must close, with the exceptions.