Waterstones has now closed all its physical bookstores in the UK.  In a statement on its website it said: “To help prevent spread of the Coronavirus, and to protect the wellbeing of our customers and staff, sadly Waterstones will temporarily close its doors by the close of trade Monday 23 March until further notice.”

Last week MD James Daunt had said the coronavirus pandemic had led to “unprecedented demand” for books at the firm and had called for all bookshops to be kept open over the coming months because they were fulfilling a public service and helping parents whose children were not at school

But in recent days he has faced a backlash from staff who questioned his decision, and he has seen many other retailers close, such as fellow book chain Blackwells and clothing outlets like Primark.  Daunt said this week: “We are recognising that today a number of other retailers have made a similar decision [to close]—Primark, there’s a whole sea of them—and we felt we need to take a time out at the very least. We still do continue to think we are offering an extraordinarily valuable social service, and if the government determines that we are one of the essential services, once we are absolutely certain we can open our shops safely with booksellers who are willing to be there, we will do so. If all shops are obliged to close, we will follow whatever the government determines.”

A number of authors were also calling for Waterstones to close, among them Adam Kay, a former doctor, who knows more than most the seriousness of the situation.  He said on twitter: “I am begging my beloved Waterstones to do the right thing and close. Every single person who comes in is endangering others, including your own staff.”

Blackwell CEO David Prescott said: “Although we may be closing our shop doors, we still want to be your first port of call for books, stationery and games. Therefore, you can still shop with us online at Blackwells.co.uk. We have been working hard during the last week to ensure that our online operations can continue to deliver directly to both existing valued customers and also to those who might be new to shopping at Blackwell’s.

“Take care of yourselves, your family and those around you during the uncertain times we face in the coming weeks. We look forward to helping you buy books to either banish boredom or to find out more about what’s happening. We hope to see you back in our shops as soon as we feel it is safe to re-open.”

For the time-being the oldest bookselling chain in the UK, WHSmith, remains open.  It is providing hand sanitiser for store teams, as well as enhanced cleaning of stores and self-checkouts.  Social distancing guidelines have been introduced and a spokesperson said: “We are very proud of our colleagues, who are doing an outstanding job in serving our customers with key products, such as educational materials, food, drinks and newspapers. W H Smith also provides vital services such as the Post Office, and serving National Health Service staff in our hospital stores. We have served our communities for over 227 years and we continue to support our customers during this challenging time.

“Our key priority is the health and wellbeing of colleagues and customers.  We have introduced additional measures to keep everyone safe and supported and all staff have been reminded of the company benevolent fund at this time.  We will continue to monitor and follow government and PHE [Public Health England] advice very closely.”