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Business leaders urge firms to follow ‘spirit not just the letter’ of lockdown

Boris Johnson ordered the immediate closure of all shops selling non-essential items on Monday evening.

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Worcester high street during the normally busy lunch hour, as the death toll from coronavirus in the UK reached 71 people.

Worcester high street during the normally busy lunch hour, as the death toll from coronavirus in the UK reached 71 people.

Worcester high street during the normally busy lunch hour, as the death toll from coronavirus in the UK reached 71 people.

Business leaders have responded to strict measures announced by the Prime Minister to curb the spread of coronavirus by urging companies to “comply with its spirit”.

As part of a nationwide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus, Boris Johnson ordered the immediate closure of all shops selling non-essential items on Monday evening.

Johnson’s announcement mentioned outlets selling electronics and clothing, adding to previous instructions that closed pubs, cafes and restaurants amid the pandemic.

London Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Richard Burge said: “The statement from the Prime Minister tonight is clear and I urge all businesses in London to comply with its spirit, not just the letter.

“London Chamber and the British Chambers of Commerce will be working hard to get pace and energy in delivering the promised government support, but now just do as asked.”

Shortly after the announcement, which said people would only be allowed to leave their homes for limited reasons including solitary exercise, bosses at Sports Direct told employees the stores would remain open as the business was “uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis”.

In a letter written by Frasers Group finance chief, Chris Wootton, and sent to all staff, he added: “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).”

Prior to the lockdown, several businesses including Greggs, Nandos and Primark had voluntarily closed their doors to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Other businesses named in the new measures include hotels and campsites.

Several other business groups called on the government for clarity about which goods were non-essential, and how employees could be supported.

Greggs sales
Greggs shut all of its stores on Monday after moving to takeaway only did not help social distancing, the firm said (Greggs/PA)

British Chamber of Commerce Director General Adam Marshall said: “Businesses must play their part to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

“As the UK goes into lockdown, ministers must be crystal-clear about which businesses can continue to operate, and those which must now shut their doors.

“The new restrictions make it all the more important that the massive package of financial support announced by ministers last week is delivered to firms and employees on the ground as quickly as possible.”

Union heads have reiterated their concerns about what the pandemic means for employees, some of whom are facing unemployment as shops close for at least three weeks.

Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) general secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Our members in supermarkets have had a torrid time over the last few days due to panic buying.

“Tonight the Government has made it absolutely clear that people can only leave home to buy essential items. We hope that brings to an end the misery that shopworkers have endured as this crisis unfolded.

Coronavirus
Shops across the country saw empty shelves amid the outbreak (Liam McBurney/PA)

“We are aware that some employers are laying staff off and asking them to go without pay until the Government’s Coronavirus Job Protection Scheme commences, potentially at the end of April.

“Low paid workers cannot wait this long without pay and we urge the Government to act urgently to protect the workforce and for employers to act sympathetically.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey also said: “The message to employers is clear: be responsible, help workers be part and parcel of the essential efforts to support the nation. Keep workers and their families safe.”

PA