Brexiteer boss of Next encourages staff into work despite lockdown

File photo dated 04/12/12 of a Next store, as the high street giant says it is bracing for "tou

File photo dated 04/12/12 of a Next store, as the high street giant says it is bracing for "tougher times" in 2017 as it warned over sales and profits after a worse-than-expected festive performance. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The pro-Brexit boss of high street fashion chain Next is encouraging workers to turn up to work despite government warnings to stay home.

Next chief executive and Conservative peer Simon Wolfson is asking workers to travel to shuttered sites and pick clothes for online orders 'to keep the company operating'.

But worried staff have questioned whether picking clothes is an 'essential' job at the same time the government has called for all non-essential workers to temporarily avoid unnecessary travel.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said that the public 'must stay at home' unless they work in a key sector or industry.

This includes some shops such as grocers, pharmacies, pet shops, bicycle shops and hardware stores, among others.

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But retailers can still trade online, and the government is now under pressure to intervene to end the confusion about which businesses can continue to operate.

A letter sent to Next employees on Tuesday evening, seen by the PA news agency, said: 'We need to keep the online business functioning to be certain that Next emerges from this short term crisis.

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'To help us, we are looking for a small number of staff to attend work to pick and process the stock in our stores that customers have purchased online and keep the online business going. We will only look to achieve this on a voluntary basis.'

Bosses also lay out a series of measures to ensure social distancing and a clean work space, including limits on the number of people in each store and rules that items are only touched by one person.

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The letter added: 'We fully understand that many of you have great concerns about attending work. Please let me reassure you that we are in no circumstances going to ask anyone who is unsure about coming to work to do so.'

Many workers in the retail and construction sectors have said they feel they have little choice but to head to work, leading to images of overcrowded trains emerging on social media.

Next said in the letter: 'We desperately need your support to keep the company operating and we hugely appreciate your help in this.

'If there are any reasons why you personally feel that it is not appropriate for you to work, we will be understanding. For example if you are caring for a vulnerable person at your home, if you cannot manage your childcare, if you cannot travel safely to work, or any other reason.'

Further on, it said: 'To show our appreciation, if you attend work you will be paid an additional 20% of your basic rate of pay for all hours worked until Saturday 11th April.

Up until last week, Next was telling staff on its internal systems that the retailer considered its 'operations as essential'.

Wolfson said a week ago he wanted the government to step up its efforts to support workers and warned of a hit to the non-food sector not seen since the 1973 oil crisis.

A spokesman for Next said: 'A very small number of staff at any one time are required to help with online orders.

'This will enable social distancing whilst these tasks are performed.'

He also stressed the new arrangements are completely voluntary and no-one is under any obligation to turn up to work.

On the group's essential status, he added: 'The government has now told us otherwise and before it did, Next had already closed all its stores.'

Last year Wolfson claimed that a no-deal Brexit would only lead to 'mild disruption' of the UK.

He said: 'I should stress that I would much prefer a deal to no deal, but I am much less frightened by no deal if the government is prepared, and there is every indication it's taking it more seriously.'

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