Retailers fight to keep warehouses open as virus crisis deepens

Retailers are fighting a rearguard action to keep their logistics operations functioning after Next pulled the plug on its distribution centres, citing employees’ concerns about the risk of contracting coronavirus.

Sky News has learnt that the British Retail Consortium (BRC) is writing to ministers on Monday to set out a series of practices to ensure social distancing that will be implemented by its members which are continuing to operate warehouses during the crisis.

Sources said that leading retailers had discussed the issue late last week after Next’s decision to temporarily close its online operations.

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Numerous retailers which have been hammered by the government’s order to close all non-essential stores are pinning their hopes on generating sufficient revenue from digital sales to keep them alive.

Next, Britain’s biggest clothing retailer by volume, had planned to keep its website functioning, but performed an abrupt U-turn last week, saying it had “listened carefully” to staff who “increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate”.

The BRC is keen for Alok Sharma, the business secretary, to understand the importance of keeping distribution centres open, particularly as the government begins to look to the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to one retail executive.

The trade body is proposing a series of measures, including staggering workers’ breaks, to ensure that social distancing guidelines are being followed.

A joint letter to the government signed by retailers’ chief executives is understood to have been discussed but not taken forward on the issue.

Trade unions have directed vocal criticism at companies including Asos and Amazon over warehouse working conditions as the coronavirus crisis has escalated.

The BRC declined to comment.