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Ashley criticised as Sports Direct remains open despite government lockdown over coronavirus

23:58 GMT 23/03/2020
Mike Ashley Newcastle
The Newcastle owner has faced widespread criticism in the past over the company's treatment of its employees

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has attracted a barrage of criticism by keeping his Sports Direct and Evans Cycles shops open despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing on Monday that all non-essential shops should close.

The businessman, already unpopular among Newcastle fans, has been the topic of much discussion on social media after Chris Wootton, the finance chief of Ashley’s Frasers Group, wrote to staff shortly after the Prime Minister’s statement.

Shops selling non-essential items have been told to shut alongside a number of other restrictions intended to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The message to Frasers Group staff read: “We stock a huge range of sports equipment for exercising at home from yoga mats, gym balls, skipping ropes, weights, indoor and outdoor trampolines, resistance bands through to bikes, treadmills, rowing machines, static exercise bikes, multigyms, fitness clothing and footwear in order for people to remain fit and healthy during this period of isolation, 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.”

Ashley has been accused by some of putting profits before the safety of employees, customers and the wider public.

Sports Direct has faced widespread criticism in the past under Ashley over the low wages paid to employees – now seemingly classed by their employer as ‘key workers’ – and the use of zero-hour contracts.

In 2016, an MPs’ report accused Sports Direct of ‘not treating staff like humans’, with committee chairman Iain Wright saying evidence suggested working practices at the company were “closer to that of a Victorian workhouse than that of a modern, reputable High Street retailer".