In an address last night prime minister Boris Johnson said the strict plan would only allow people out for essential shopping, to receive or give care, to exercise once a day or travel for work which cannot be done at home.
He also ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses in a bid to halt the spread of Covid-19.
But in a widely-criticised move, which has now been reversed, Sports Direct owned by Mike Ashley pledged to keep its doors open on grounds it is essential because it sells exercise equipment.
It said in an email to workers just 16 minutes after Mr Johnson gave his announcement: ‘We stock a huge range of sports equipment designed for exercising at home... indeed, home fitness is the number one trending topic on social media after coronavirus itself.
‘Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms, the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
‘Consequently, we are uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis and thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this (in accordance with the government’s current social distancing guidance).
‘There is no one else that has the range of product and range of stores to make this reasonably accessible for the whole population.’
Sports Direct itself also tweeted the prime minister just before 1am, saying: ‘Hi @BorisJohnson @10DowningStreet should we open our stores in the morning?’
Politicians and political figures have rallied to lambast the company after the messages.
Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery questioned the decision, tweeting: ‘Who on earth does Mike Ashley think he is? He's prepared to endanger the life of his employees and the public at large.’
The Wansbeck MP added selling sports equipment ‘is not an essential service’, while Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami said Sports Direct staying open could potentially be ‘putting vulnerable people at risk’.
‘Take some responsibility SHUT UP SHOP,' Mr Lavery concluded.
Meanwhile Labour MP, Jess Phillips joked there was ‘nothing people cannot live without in Sports Direct’ apart from ‘massive mugs’.
It was announced just after 8am the company would not be opening its stores ‘until given the go ahead by the government’.