Coronavirus: Sports Direct will close stores after owner told to 'back off' by government

24 March 2020, 08:00

Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley was told to close the stores
Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley was told to close the stores. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Sports Direct will be closing its stores as of Tuesday morning after the UK government told its owner Mike Ashley to "back off".

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said he could not see any reason for Sports Direct remaining open during coronavirus restrictions and did not consider it as essential work.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Mr Gove said Mike Ashley, the chief executive of Sports Direct, should reverse on the announcement made late last night that said he would keep stores open.

When asked what workers should do if told to come into the stores, the minister said: "My view is that Mike Ashley should rescind what he said.

"He should back off."

The retail giant has now sent emails to its employees saying: "We will not open our Sports Direct or Evans Stores to the public ... until we are given to go-ahead by the government."

The Cabinet Office Minister told LBC he understands Sports Direct will "not be staying open" during the pandemic.

Mr Gove reiterated the government's advice to remain indoors "wherever possible" and keep trips outside to a bare minimum.

"Yes it's important people exercise but that should be done once a day and it's a basic thing," he added.

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

Workers for the company said they feel their lives are "undervalued" as they are still being made to work despite stores being closed to the public.

Leonnie Foster, from Worksop, Nottinghamshire, and works in one of the company's factories, says sticking to social distancing advice is "unrealistic".

"I feel massively at risk and I feel like my health, life and family, as I still live at home with my parents and sister, are undervalued," the 18-year-old said.

"The factory needs to shut as well to protect all the staff."

Another worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said they have worked at the company since they were 16 and now have a young family.

"I cuddled a scared and confused five-year-old to bed last night knowing that his mum and dad could risk potentially bringing in the virus for the sake of some fitness equipment," they said.

"I am disappointed (the announcement to close stores to the public) has not come from the company itself and am worried they find another loophole to continue us working. I have had no contact from them as of yet."

On Monday, Boris Johnson ordered all non-essential stores to close their doors for the next three weeks in a televised address from Downing Street.

But Mike Ashley's Frasers Group, which includes Sports Direct and Evans Cycles, wrote to all workers within 30 minutes of the announcement to say they remain open because selling sporting and fitness equipment makes the company a vital asset during a national shutdown.

In an email seen by the PA news agency, finance chief Chris Wootton wrote: "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.

"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."