BOSSES at a health food chain say they will not close their stores amid the coronavirus crisis despite demands from thousands of staff and shoppers.

A petition asking for all 715 Holland and Barrett stores in the UK to be closed to protect workers has been signed more than 6,000 times.

But a spokeswoman for the store, which has sites in London Road, North Street, Churchill Square and George Street in Brighton and Hove, said it has been informed by the Government that it is one of the retailers expected to stay open.

The petition was started by a Holland and Barrett employee under the name H D.

They said: "Holland and Barrett is currently being seen as an essential company because we sell food that caters for those with dietary requirements. However, these past couple of weeks have been very difficult for my fellow colleagues and I.

"Being on the frontline, dealing with customers day in and day out, increases the chances of the virus spreading rapidly."

"The company has not been providing us hand washes, anti-bacterial gels and other form of protection to reduce the chance of catching the virus."

"The stores need to be closed so we not only keep ourselves safe, but also the nation. All we want is to be safe and be with our loved ones during this period of crisis.

"Many of us travel to work using public transport which is dangerous enough as it is. We are surrounded by those who are most at risk when using public transport. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, people with HIV, asthma etc.

"We deal with a variety of customers every day including the customers who are most at risk. It is our job as a society to protect those who are vulnerable and close the stores so we have a better chance of preventing coronavirus from spreading.

"Please close the stores, to prevent (putting) many more lives at risk and many more deaths."

But a Holland and Barrett spokeswoman explained why the chain would be keeping stores open, saying this action was expected of the retailer by the Government.

She said: "In these unprecedented times the safety of our teams and customers is of paramount importance.

"As a health, wellness and speciality food retailer, we have been advised by the Government that we fall within the list of retailers that are expected to remain open.

"This relates to the fact that 90 per cent of what we sell is food, vitamins and food supplements, which many of our customers rely on to manage their dietary or underlying conditions.

"For example, 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 at this time.

"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. We have provided gloves, masks and hand sanitiser to all of our store colleagues and have also installed shielding screens at the counter and are following all other safety advice.

"We have asked all colleagues who have any concerns about these safety measures or who need more gloves, masks or sanitiser provided to contact to either contact their manager or our dedicated colleague helpline.

"In addition to this, social distancing is also being enforced with clear guidance in store. We have limited the maximum number of customers allowed in the stores at any one time, dependent on store size, and tape has been installed marking out a two metre distance from the tills with clear signage throughout stores.

"The contactless payment limit has also been increased to £45 in the UK from the April 1 and we are encouraging all customers to scan and bag their own items where possible, with guidance from store staff. We have also closed stores temporarily where we can serve local communities from fewer locations."

The Holland and Barrett store in Churchill Square has been temporarily closed.

The spokeswoman said: "Any colleague self-isolating under Government guidelines because of symptoms, or symptoms in someone they live with, will receive full pay for the recommended self-isolation period.

"We have also written to those colleagues who have identified themselves as ‘most at risk’ to offer options for working from home.

"If this is not possible they will receive full pay for up to the 12-week isolation period. For any colleagues showing no symptoms, and who haven’t identified themselves as falling into the ‘most at risk’ category, but who doesn’t feel comfortable coming into work despite these safety measures, we will continue to employ these colleagues, and offer the options of statutory sick pay, TOIL (time off in lieu), or holiday pay.

"We are bolstering our online capacity as quickly as possible so customers can order from home where possible, and have set also up a new customer phone line for those customers who cannot access our website for home delivery.

"We strongly encourage our colleagues to use our dedicated helpline if they have any questions."