22/03/2020 20:29 GMT | Updated 23/03/2020 09:00 GMT

Coronavirus: Waterstones Closes Shops After Staff Backlash Over Staying Open

Chief executive James Daunt had defended decision to remain operating stores before temporary closures announced.

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Book chain Waterstones is to close its stores despite its boss defending staying open as an essential service during the coronavirus outbreak.

Twitter was flooded with appeals to the bookshop giant to shut its doors amid the health crisis, with some claiming to be Waterstones workers imploring people to “please stay home” rather than visit stores. 

In an interview with HuffPost UK, chief executive James Daunt defended the chain’s decision to stay open for business, saying books offer “a great solace” to people facing long periods in isolation and that “customers are buying lots”. 

Daunt said he believed bookshops should be treated as a core service, like pharmacies or grocery stores and stressed that staff who were working were doing so on a voluntary basis.

“We are giving families an ability to get through this period, and that’s not without a sacrifice on our part,” he said.

But on Sunday evening, the firm said it was temporarily closing from Monday. 

A spokesperson said: “To mitigate possible spread of the coronavirus, and to protect the wellbeing of our customers and staff, we regret to announce the temporary closure of all Waterstones branches.

“This will be in effect from the end of trade Monday 23 March until further notice.

“As this period of isolation will attest, books are vital to our society, and we very much look forward to the moment we can open our doors and begin bookselling on the high street again. In the meantime, will continue to serve our customers’ reading needs.”

Boris Johnson this week ordered social venues such as pubs, restaurants, cafes, gyms and leisure centres so close down, as the UK tries to slow the spread of the potentially-fatal disease among the population. 

Following chancellor Rishi Sunak’s multi-billion pound compensation package for the retail sector, a string of chain stores voluntarily closed their doors too. 

It comes as the government and health chiefs repeatedly beg the public to stay at home and avoid mixing with others, as per the official advice on social-distancing

Power-holders across the UK have stressed that following the advice will save lives.

Roger Utting Photography via Getty Images
Employees have voiced their fears about serving customers as the outbreak continues. 

The Waterstones boss had claimed “even in societies in total lockdown, essential retailers are open and there has been considerable debate as to whether bookshops should be included amongst those”. 

In France, it has been proposed that bookshops should be counted as an essential service

Daunt added: “We are very busy, we know that customers are buying lots of books, and increasingly, as the crisis has unfolded, we understand why they’re doing so. 

“They’re facing the prospect of extended periods in isolation, whether individually or within their families, and we all understand why books would be a great solace and support during that time.”

Waterstones workers have shared anxieties about working in customer–facing roles in stores, and staff behind the social media accounts of the Newcastle and Swansea branches have even taken the step of begging customers to stay away. 

A tweet from the Newcastle store stated that the store was open “quite simply, because it’s not our decision,” adding “we love you all but please stay home”. 

Meanwhile, a widely-circulated tweet from the Swansea branch stated: “Please DON’T come in. We DON’T want to see you (until this is all behind us, when we’d love to see you all).” 

A series of tweets from an anonymous Twitter account has also been shared thousands of times, describing how “no hand sanitiser [was being] provided, no wipes, no disinfectant, no reduced shop hours, cash still being accepted”.

They also described witnessing “absolutely no social distancing being observed.

“I spent most of my shift feeling sick to my f**king stomach, tears in my eyes, almost experienced a complete breakdown on the middle of the shop floor midday.

“I counted over 350 customers filing into the store today.”