Wilko has admitted it “got it wrong” for telling staff they could come into work if they tested positive for Covid-19, and apologised after it was criticised for issuing “reckless” guidance amid a new wave of coronavirus infections and hospitalisations.

The homeware retailchain, which has 414 stores and 16,000 employees across the UK, sent a memo to staff with guidance on its workplace policy after the government’s relaxation of rules as part of its “living with Covid” plan published last month.

“If you test positive for Covid-19 and feel well, you can continue to come to work,” stated the staff memo, which applied from 1 March. It added: “If you feel too unwell, you can follow the absence policy.”

The government lifted the legal obligation to self-isolate after testing positive in England, where most Wilko stores and staff are located, from 24 February. Since the rule change, case numbers and hospitalisations have surged.

Wilko’s guidance drew criticism with GMB, the union representing the chain’s employees, who said it was reckless guidance that could set a precedent other companies may follow.

On Tuesday, Wilko’s chief executive, Jerome Saint-Marc, issued an apology on Twitter and clarified that the company position is that those who test positive should “still stay at home and avoid contact with others”.

“When we get something wrong we hold our hands up, admit it, and work to correct the situation,” he said. “Today’s news has highlighted some miscommunication within our Covid-19 policies, and I wanted to reassure all our customers and team members. The safety and wellbeing of our shoppers and teams is at the heart of our business and we’re truly sorry for any understandable concerns our communications may have raised.”

Government policy differs in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where self-isolation rules remain in place and employees have to quarantine for at least five days if they develop Covid-19 symptoms, and remain off work until they have two negative lateral flow tests.

On Monday, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC union, wrote to the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, saying: “Ministers are sowing dangerous confusion on Covid safety at work.”

The TUC has said that people should not be forced into making a “terrible choice” between going into work with coronavirus or risk losing income by self-isolating at home.

From 1 April, employers will no longer be required to explicitly consider Covid-19 in workplace risk assessments.

“We operate an enhanced company sick pay policy and support those team members most in need, including those with Covid-19,” said Saint-Marc. “We’ll continue to look after our team members to the best of our ability.”

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Wilko apologises for saying staff could come to work if they had Covid

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