By Scott Wright

TIM Martin, the boss of JD Wetherspoon, found himself at the centre of a coronavirus storm yesterday after suggesting that closing pubs to halt the spread of Covid-19 would be “over the top”.

Martin told the City yesterday morning that sales at Wetherspoon dropped at a “significantly higher rate” this week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised people to avoid pubs under social distancing measures to combat the virus. Last night Johnson went further and ordered pubs to be closed.

Mr Martin said closing pubs would be “over the top” in a press briefing following the publication of his firm’s interim results.

Although growing numbers of pubs, bars, hotels, restaurants, theatres and cinemas have been closing, he said Wetherspoon’s 800-plus pubs would remain open. He suggested pub-goers could still adhere to social distancing measures in outlets, such as by not drinking at the bar, adding that there has been “hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs”.

Mr Martin had earlier this week advocated herd immunity as the “best path for the UK”.

However his stance drew an angry backlash on social media yesterday, with

the hashtag #BoycottWetherspoons trending for several hours on Twitter. Mr Martin defended his right to comment.

The controversy came as Wetherspoon reported pre-tax profits has climbed to £57.9 million in the 26 weeks ended January 26, up from £50.3m for the same period last year.

Wetherspoon said like-for-like sales rose by 3.2% in the six weeks to March 8, before falling by 4.5% in the week to March 15.

Mr Martin said there was an even steeper fall after Johnson said people should avoid pubs. He said the firm is now unable to provide “realistic guidance” on its performance for this year, and cancelled the proposed interim dividend.