Staff at health supplement retailer Holland and Barrett are demanding it closes its stores on safety grounds amid the coronavirus outbreak.
An online petition said the chain, which has more than 700 shops across the UK, was seen as an “essential” business due to it selling products that cater for people with dietary requirements.
But the creators of the petition, which has received more than 3,500 signatures, added that being on the “front lines” in stores was “very difficult” for staff and increased the risks of spreading the virus.
The company said the safety of its teams and customers was of “paramount importance”.
The petition said stores “need to be closed” to keep staff safe, highlighting that some have to use public transport to get into work.
“It is our job as a society to protect those who are vulnerable and close the stores so we have a better chance in preventing coronavirus from spreading,” the petition said.
A Holland and Barrett spokesman said that as a “health, wellness and speciality food retailer” the company had been advised by the Government it was among certain retailers expected to stay open.
“This relates to the fact that 90% of what we sell is food, vitamins and food supplements, which many of our customers rely on to manage their dietary or underlying conditions,” they added.
The company said examples of such customers include: pregnant women in need of folic acid supplementation; Coeliacs; those with milk and egg allergies; those outlined by the Government as “at-risk” groups in need of vitamin D supplementation; and those caring for customers with compromised immune systems, in need of additional support.
“We are working around the clock to ensure our teams are as safe as possible whilst staying open to meet the needs of our customers,” the spokesman said.
The company said staff have been provided gloves, masks and hand sanitiser in all stores and shielding screens have been installed at counters.
Social distancing is also being enforced in stores, with a limit on the maximum number of people allowed inside at any one time.
Tape is being used to mark out a two metre distance from tills and signage put in place.
The company said it had closed some stores temporarily where it can serve local communities from fewer locations.
“We strongly encourage our colleagues to use our dedicated helpline if they have any questions,” the Holland and Barrett spokesman said.
Staff who are self-isolating will receive full pay for that period, while those identifying as “most at risk” are being offered work from home options.
Employees not in those categories who still do not feel comfortable coming to work will be offered the options of statutory sick pay, TOIL, or holiday pay, the company said.
Its spokesman added: “We are bolstering our online capacity as quickly as possible so customers can order from home where possible, and have also set up a new customer phone line for those customers who cannot access our website for home delivery.”