Coronavirus: The Warehouse thought it was 'expected to trade' during COVID-19 lockdown - CEO

The Warehouse Group has defended efforts to keep its 258 retailers open during New Zealand's coronavirus lockdown period, saying it genuinely thought they met the criteria of essential services.

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced the country would escalate its COVID-19 response to alert level 4 for four weeks, meaning all non-essential businesses would have to close in that timeframe.

But in a surprise announcement to the share market on Tuesday, The Warehouse said its brands - which include The Warehouse, Noel Leeming, Torpedo7, Warehouse Stationery, 1-Day and TheMarket - provide key consumer goods to Kiwis, so wouldn't be shutting up shop.

However after the Government's clarification on essential services - and a 52,879-strong petition calling its decision to keep stores open a "public health disaster" - The Warehouse changed its position on Wednesday.

The Warehouse Group has now released a statement explaining why it initially pushed to stay open, claiming it thought it was "expected to trade".

"We were in contact with Government for some time and on Tuesday morning, when we confirmed The Warehouse (Red Sheds) would be open, we did so in good faith," Warehouse Group chief executive Nick Grayston wrote on Thursday morning.

He said that decision was made "on the basis of the information we had been given from credible sources, and our strong belief, supported by legal advice, that Red Sheds met the criteria of being an essential service".

Grayston said it was his belief that the criteria set out by the Government - that "any entity involved in the supply, delivery, distribution and sale of food, beverage and other key consumer goods essential for maintaining the wellbeing of people" - meant The Warehouse wouldn't need to close.

"With the information, we had to hand we understood that our significant grocery, toiletries, cleaning, warmth essentials for winter needs and our national coverage meant that we were expected to trade," Grayston added.

"In addition, at the time of the announcement we were working with our 12,000 team members and suppliers, who were understandably very keen to receive definitive answers around our status as a business."

Grayston says after reversing its decision to remain open, The Warehouse will now turn its attention to affected staff.

"With 12,000 employees at home, our attention will now turn to supporting them in a range of ways and we will focus on that in the coming days."

He says he "completely supports the need to do everything possible to keep all New Zealanders safe".

The closure of all non-essential businesses during the lockdown period is a Government measure designed to reduce the transmission of coronavirus by limiting physical contact.

New Zealand currently has 205 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19.