Coronavirus: Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley 'deeply apologetic' for blunders

James Sillars, business reporter

Retail tycoon Mike Ashley says he is "deeply apologetic" following a series of mistakes in his company's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The boss of Frasers Group, which has Sports Direct and House of Fraser in its stable of companies, published an open letter on Friday morning in which he expressed regrets but also offered use of the company's truck fleet to the NHS for the delivery of supplies to fight COVID-19.

He was roundly criticised by MPs for emails to the government, as the country was placed on lockdown, in which the company claimed Sports Direct was essential for keeping the nation active.

It later moved to defend its stance in further correspondence before backing down and closing stores.

Mr Ashley said in his letter: "Our intentions were only to seek clarity from the government as to whether we should keep some of our stores open; we would never have acted against their advice.

"In hindsight, our emails to the government were ill-judged and poorly timed, when they clearly had much greater pressures than ours to deal with.

"On top of this, our communications to our employees and the public on this was poor.

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"To reiterate, I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future."

The letter also sounded a note of caution on the impact the COVID-19 crisis was likely to have on the company, which has lost almost half its market value in the year to date - leaving it below £1.6bn.

Mr Ashley is a controlling shareholder with a 63% stake.

"We are working very hard to save our business, so that we can continue to be one of the biggest employers on the UK high street once this pandemic has passed," he said.

The tycoon, who also owns Newcastle United, is a colourful but controversial figure in the business world.

Mr Ashley became locked in a fierce battle with MPs and unions in 2016 as Sports Direct was accused of operating "Victorian workhouse" conditions at its Shirebrook warehouse operation in Derbyshire.

He told a court a year later, as he successfully fought off a case brought by an investment banker, that he was a "power drinker" who "liked to get drunk".

Sports Direct's website remains open for business and is not alone in that sales sphere though Next announced on Thursday evening that it had shut down its online business amid pressure from staff.