Coronavirus lockdown: The Warehouse urged to close as thousands sign petition, MBIE refutes 'essential' claims

Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have signed a petition urging the Government to declare The Warehouse Group retailers 'non-essential' ahead of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

The petition was launched after the company announced its retailers - which includes The Warehouse, Noel Leeming, Torpedo7, Warehouse Stationery, 1-Day and TheMarket - would be remaining open beyond 11:59pm on Wednesday.

After midnight on Wednesday, New Zealand escalates its COVID-19 response to alert level 4, meaning all non-essential businesses will be forced to close.

But in an announcement to the sharemarket on Tuesday, The Warehouse said it provides key consumer goods to Kiwis, so won't be shutting up shop.

"In the past two weeks the group has seen unprecedented demand for essential items across all our brands," it said. "Goods sold included essential items to prepare themselves for the mandatory isolation period of at least four weeks."

Each of its 92 'Red Sheds' and distribution centres will remain open beyond Wednesday at this stage.

That announcement provoked a strong social media backlash and now a petition is urging the Ministry of Health to step in and officially label The Warehouse Group's retailers 'non-essential services'.

The petition, which calls The Warehouse's decision to remain open a "public health disaster", has already attracted more than 16,000 signatures in just a few hours.

"These large companies have online services which will still be running," the petition reads. "There is absolutely no reason we need the physical stores open at level 4."

"This is disgraceful hypocrisy, 90 percent of the Warehouse products are non-essential," a Kiwi who signed the petition added.

"[It's] not fair on the other retailers who have a much smaller virus-spreading footprint."

On top of the petition, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that The Warehouse Group had not been given the green light to continue trading during the lockdown.

MBIE chief executive Paul Stocks said while he wouldn't speak about specific companies, businesses should be cautious about announcing anything before receiving official confirmation.

The Warehouse Group's response

"The Warehouse Group Limited (“Warehouse Group”) has agreed with the NZX to place the ordinary shares (“WHS”) and the bonds (“WHS020”) of the Group in trading halt.

"There is considerable uncertainty around what meets the definition of essential businesses and which products and services they are able to provide.

"The Warehouse Group is in discussions with government on what categories within The Warehouse will be available post escalation to COVID-19 Alert Level 4.

"The Group will make an announcement when there is better definition of this, and will then request the trading halt is lifted. It is expected that this will be by tomorrow morning."