Sports Direct has said it will close its stores in a major U-turn after initially calling for its workers to continue selling sports and fitness equipment in the face of coronavirus.
Politicians hit out at the store for keeping stores open after the Prime Minister ordered non-essential shops to close, with Labour’s chairman telling company majority owner Mike Ashley to “take some responsibility” and “shut up shop”.
Management justified the move on the basis that selling sporting and fitness equipment makes the company a vital asset during a national shutdown, according to an email seen by the PA news agency.
Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group, which includes Sports Direct and Evans Cycles, wrote to all workers within 30 minutes of Boris Johnson’s decision to shut down all non-essential retailers.
The store has since reversed its decision.
Endanger the life of employees and public
Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery questioned the initial decision, tweeting: “Who on earth does Mike Ashley think he is? He’s prepared to endanger the life of his employees and the public at large.”
The Wansbeck MP added that selling sports equipment “is not an essential service”, while Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami said Sports Direct staying open could potentially be “putting vulnerable people at risk”.
“Take some responsibility SHUT UP SHOP” Mr Lavery concluded.
Labour MP Jess Phillips agreed that the firm was “not essential”, tweeting: “Massive mugs notwistanding there is nothing people cannot live without in Sports Direct.”
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
Earlier, Sports Direct finance chief Chris Wootton wrote to staff and noted home fitness was the “number one trending topic on social media after coronavirus itself”.
He added: “Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“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 (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.”
Newcastle upon Tyne Central MP Chi Onwurah did not appear to think the company’s decision was reasonable or even realistic, asking on Twitter: “This has to be a spoof, right?”
Fellow Labour MP Bill Esterson tweeted “But not Sports Direct” above a list of businesses allowed to stay open under the new measures, while Nottingham South MP Lilian Greenwood encouraged her constituents to “show Mike Ashley what we think of this profiteering”.
Earlier, the PM said restrictions would be tightened up so only essential journeys should be made by key workers.
He also said people could leave home for exercise, but only while maintaining social distancing.