Gift shop owner who refused to close during lockdown fined £35,000 after court hearing

The owners of a gift card shop who refused to close during lockdown after arguing they sold the same items as WH Smith have been fined £35,000 by magistrates.

Defiant business owners Alasdair, 54, and wife Lydia Walker-Cox, 50

Alasdair Walker-Cox, 54, and wife Lydia, 50, were penalised for breaking coronavirus rules after they stayed open despite non-essential shops being told to shut.

They insisted they did nothing wrong because they sold essentials like newspapers, snacks and baking products and said they would rather go to prison than close.

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Worcestershire Regulatory Services hit them with seven separate fines after ordering them to close the doors of Grace Cards and Books in Droitwich, Worcs.

The couple were first fined £1,000 last November and accumulated a whopping £20,000 in penalties for keeping their shop open.

Mr Walker-Cox went on trial at Kidderminster Magistrates Court to deny failing to comply with The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions ) Regulations.

But JPs found him guilty of the charges and slapped him with £5,000 fines for each breach - totalling a cost of £35,000.

Sentencing, District Judge Ian Strongman, said: "The products Mr Walker-Cox had in his shop were not those of a food retailer but those of a confectioner. For example, if you sell a Mars bar in a shop, you are not a food retailer. Again, if a shop happens to sell a few newspapers, it is not a newsagents.

"It's a card and book shop who happen to sell a few newspapers. On this occasion, the local authority were right to serve the prohibitions notices. He brought this upon himself."

The court heard heard the pair were served with numerous prohibition notices during lockdown two in November and lockdown three in February of this year.

Giving evidence, Peter Maloney, team leader of environmental health at Worcestershire Regulatory Services, said: “When police visited their shop and told them to close they didn't, so they were served a prohibition notice."

Walker-Cox, whose wife Lydia appeared in the public galley, gave evidence to the court of his shop stocked with sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

But prosecutor Howard Leithead, said: "Any shop can set up a few drinks and sell newspapers to become a newsagents - this clearly wasn't a newsagents. It sends a signal that it is easy to flout regulations.

"The shop is a called a card and book shop - that is exactly what it is. He had very little regard for the Covid rules and was prepared to take this risk. He couldn't really decide what his shop was - a food retailer or a card and book shop

Giving evidence, Walker-Cox told the court how they had compared their business to others like WH Smith and decided to stay open.

He said: "We noticed WH Smith were open and we sold similar items to them so we remained open. We could increase our offerings of essential goods. We have lots of cake making materials and we sold drinks before lockdown and brought a Coca-Cola refrigerator earlier this year.

"It was dismissed by the council as not being essential. After a visit on the February 19 by the council, we sought guidance from the council about how we could go about being an essential offering. That advice wasn't forthcoming."

When questioned in court, Mr Walker-Cox admitted that he wanted to remain open because he was worried about paying rent to the landlord.

When accused of bending the rules to make it look like he was a newsagents, Mr Walker-Cox replied: "No, we are a newsagents."

Natasha Hausdorff, defending, said: "Grace Cards and Books was renowned for being a sugar craft company for a substantial amount of time. This business has evolved over a number of years to serve to community."

She also claimed Mr Walker-Cox's shop can fall into either the category of news or food, which was on a government exemption list during the pandemic.

Speaking previously, the couple, who have run the shop for 30 years, said they would rather go to prison than close their business.

Lydia said: "We don’t sell anything that much different than WH Smith so why can they stay open but we cannot? A garden centre is open from 10am till 6pm, what is essential about that? We are doing our job and we have a family to feed and bills to pay.

"I can't see the proof of being a health hazard and that is the grounds for which we are being told to close. Our lease states that we can sell food items so we can be classed as a food retailer.

“When the rubber hits the road, if it was you who didn’t have a job and can’t provide for your family and can’t pay your bills then it would be different. We’re willing to go all the way, it’s the principle now and we have got legal help. The cost of closing is the same as remaining open so we’re damned either way."