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Sports Direct wants to open shops if government gives permission

Pedestrians are seen reflected in a window as they pass a branch of Sports Direct on Oxford Street in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Sports Direct, Britain's largest sports retailer, wants to keep its shops open despite new regulations requiring non-essential shops to close during the coronavirus outbreak, and has asked the government for permission to do so.

Sports Direct, founded by billionaire Mike Ashley, was criticised by unions and politicians earlier on Tuesday after it said it would keep its stores open despite the new government measures, announced late on Monday, which said only shops like supermarkets and pharmacies could open.

Chris Wootton, finance chief of the brand's parent company Frasers Group, said in an email to clarify the Sports Direct position that he had asked the government for permission to open the shops, arguing that sports equipment is essential.

Sports Direct stores would only open if given permission, a representative for the brand said.

The permission sought by Sports Direct, however, seems unlikely to be granted by the government.

"We'll be talking to everyone affected, but it's clear to me that Sports Direct is not essential retail," Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told BBC TV on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday told all Britons to stay at home to halt the spread of coronavirus, saying that all but essential shops must shut immediately and people should no longer meet family or friends or risk being fined.

Sports Direct has about 700 stores across the UK and continental Europe. Frasers Group also owns Evans Cycles, a bike shop.

Wootton wants the government to give Sports Direct shops permission to open at a time when gyms and leisure centres are closed and people want to buy equipment to exercise at home.

"There is no one else that has the range of product and range of stores to make this reasonably accessible for the whole population," Wootton said in the letter to staff.

Britons can still order goods online under the new government measures telling them to stay at home.

(Reporting by Sarah Young; additional reporting by Paul Sandle, Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Susan Fenton)