Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley to “obey the rules or to expect the consequences”, after the retailing heavyweight insisted staff must continue working during the coronavirus outbreak.
During a bumper PMQs, Johnson was repeatedly asked about the situation facing workers, particularly self-employed, who currently have no additional support beyond usual allowances.
The Prime Minister told numerous MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in his last appearance as leader of the opposition, that chancellor Rishi Sunak would bring foward new measures. It is understood that could be as early as tomorrow.
But asked by Labour MP Chi Onwurah specifically about Ashley “forcing workers into empty Sports Direct shops”, Johnson had a strong message.
“The advice – the instruction – to the gentlemen in question, and every business, is to follow what the government has said, to obey the rules, or to expect the consequences. That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well,” he said.
Speaking subsequently, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Businesses which ignore the instructions of the government to close face enforcement action, the most severe sanction of which is an unlimited fine.”
On Monday Johnson told all non-essential retailers they must shut. However construction workers have been told they can continue to work, as long as they observe current advice, particularly the two-metre rule.
On this area, too, the Prime Minister had a message, telling MPs profiteering from the coronavirus outbreak “is something we shall be looking at from legislative point of view”.
However his spokesman subsequently suggested it was more likely to be dealt with through the Competition and Markets Authority, which has set up a specific Covid-19 taskforce to address “excessive price increases” and “remedy concerns that some businesses are exploiting consumers through harmful sales and pricing practices”.
The spokesman added: “We would urge anybody who has concerns to report them to the CMA, which can use range of powers to tackle bad behaviour including significant fines.
“We will also look at whether any further action is necessary.”