Coronavirus: Sports Direct boss 'deeply' sorry for virus blunders

Mike Ashley Image copyright Getty Images

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley has said he is "deeply apologetic" for a series of blunders in the way his chain has reacted to the coronavirus lockdown.

The retailer lobbied the government to keep his shops open, arguing they were an "essential service", but backed down after a backlash from staff and media.

Mr Ashley admitted his request was "ill judged and poorly timed" and said he would "learn from his mistakes".

The retail tycoon also offered to lend the NHS his delivery trucks.

In an open letter, Mr Ashley also admitted the firm's communications to staff and the public were "poor".

"I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future," he said.

The letter marks a change in tone for the billionaire. Earlier this week, Sports Direct asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson directly on Twitter whether its stores should stay open.

Sports Direct had argued that it provided an essential service. Bosses at the company said the sports equipment it sells can be used to exercise at home at a time when gyms have been closed.

However, the chain's initial plan to stay open drew widespread backlash from both politicians and the public.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "I can't see any justification for Sports Direct remaining open."

Mr Ashley, worth £1.9bn according to the Sunday Times Rich List, is one of the country's biggest owners of High Street retailers.

Through Frasers Group, he controls House of Fraser, Sports Direct, Evans Cycles, Lillywhites, Flannels, Agent Provocateur and he recently bought a 12.5% stake in luxury leather goods group Mulberry.

It is not the first time Mr Ashley had been criticised over the treatment of workers.

An investigation by The Guardian in 2015 revealed people working at Sports Direct's warehouse in Shirebrook,Derbyshire receiving less than the minimum wage because of rigorous searches and surveillance.

Meanwhile, the BBC discovered that ambulances were called out to the site 76 times in two years.

Evans Cycles

Frasers Group also owns Evans Cycles, which is regarded as an essential retailer. But it has currently closed all those stores too, pending review.

Businesses that are allowed to stay open under the strict new guidelines include:

  • Supermarkets and convenience stores
  • Off-licences
  • Banks
  • Pharmacies
  • Post offices
  • Market stalls selling food
  • Restaurants and cafes that offer a takeaway service
  • Bicycle shops

Several other firms came under fire this week after saying that some of their stores would stay open.

The Halfords bicycle and auto repair chain drew criticism after saying it would keep some stores open despite being named by the government as an "essential provider of services”.

Meanwhile, housebuilder Redrow has said it will suspend work on all sites after construction workers cited fears for their safety.