A London estate agent has been accused of flouting a nationwide lockdown enforced by the government to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Staff at Dexters were told to go into offices across the capital on Tuesday, after a government order that people should only go out for work “where this absolutely cannot be done from home”.

Dexters, which operates 100 offices and has 1,500 employees throughout London and the South East, is no longer conducting property viewings due to the lockdown.

The company said offices were closed to the public but open for staff who are “continuing to work through our website and on the phone”.

Dexters faced criticism on social media as people reported seeing employees in the company’s offices on Tuesday. The mother of one employee told The Independent she was concerned that Dexters’ approach could put the health of her family and the wider public at unnecessary risk.

The estate agent’s founder and chairman Jeff Doble said he believed the criticism was unfair and that much of the work Dexters does cannot be carried out from home.

He said Dexters was “in the process of winding down”on Tuesday but pointed to the fact that the government’s lockdown announcement was “only yesterday” giving little time for firms to prepare.

On Monday night, the prime minister told people not to go out apart from in very limited circumstances including attending medical appointments and buying food. 

The latest intensification of social distancing measures means people should only go out for work “where this absolutely cannot be done from home”.

Anyone caught breaking the rules faces a fine of up to £1,000 from Thursday, when a bill containing the new legislation to deal with coronavirus is expected to become law.

Mr Doble said Dexters was “dealing with an enormous number of calls,”  adding: “We would like to tool-down but it is very difficult in the face of a lot of work.” 

The workload had not been helped by the fact that the government had “left everyone with the idea they don’t have to pay the rent”, he added.

The government introduced emergency legislation last week banning evictions during the Covid-19 national emergency amid fears that many tenants may not be able to pay their rent.

Landlords cannot start eviction proceedings during the crisis but rent still falls due and arrears will mount up for tenants who do not make scheduled payments.

Buy-to-let landlords are able to apply for a mortgage repayment holiday from their bank if their rental income falls as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, Dexters said: “Where our colleagues can, they are working from home and we are fully available to help Londoners with their urgent and longer term property needs.”

Retailer Sports Direct backtracked on its own decision to stay open on Tuesday morning after facing a backlash. The company had claimed it was “uniquely well-placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis”.

“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),” finance chief Chris Wooton told staff in a letter.

However, the company said on Tuesday morning its shops would close their doors.

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