Mike Ashley was lambasted for suggesting his stores would remain open during the UK’s lockdown to keep the country fit © PA

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Common enemies are a source of comfort, psychologists say. So let us be grateful to the British business leaders stepping up for roles as pantomime villains. Dividend snafflers, job slashers and the tin-eared all serve to unite the nation against them. 

Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct founder, is a case in point. On Friday, the self-made billionaire infamous for once vomiting in a pub fireplace, issued a grovelling apology for recent “misunderstandings”. He had come under fire for suggesting his stores would remain open during the UK’s lockdown to keep the country fit. Flogging tracksuits, it turns out, is not essential.

Tim Martin, the mulleted boss of pub group JD Wetherspoon, is another. He got flak for saying it was “over the top” to close pubs and then for an online video suggesting that his workers get a job at Tesco. He signed off jauntily with a “Best of luck!”

Pooh-poohing public health advice in the middle of a pandemic is unlikely to make you popular. But there have been many generous gestures from business leaders, too. Mr Ashley has offered lorries to help deliver medical equipment and supplies, for example.

Virgin Atlantic was heavily criticised after it asked staff to save costs, starting with taking eight weeks of unpaid leave. Labour MP Angela Rayner called on boss Richard Branson to “flog your private island and pay your staff”. But last Sunday, Sir Richard committed to investing $250m into his Virgin empire to protect jobs. Stelios Haji-Ioannou who, with siblings, received nearly £60m of dividends from easyJet, was less emollient, saying the “elephant in the room” was the company’s multibillion-pound aircraft order

There has been no dress rehearsal for this outbreak, Mr Ashley rightly said. Businesses face real dilemmas. Even with the government’s support, some are battling for survival. Bosses are under huge pressure. They will sometimes say dumb things.

Proportionate criticism of outliers serves a useful purpose, even so. Companies depend on public support for profits in normal times. In return, they need to recognise their social responsibilities during this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

Lex coronavirus advice exchange. We invite Lex readers to swap advice, queries and opinions. Please send us your thoughts via lexfeedback@ft.com. You are welcome to use a nickname sign-off/anonymous email. We plan to publish curated highlights. 

Suggestions and questions are most welcome on areas core to Lex’s readership of corporate executives, bankers, investors, entrepreneurs and professional advisers. These include staying solvent, business continuity, staff welfare, government bailouts and investment.



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