Hays Travel has “no plans to stop or stall” its schedule of opening former Thomas Cook shops in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The agency became the UK’s largest retailer when it acquired the leases for the entire Cook retail network after the company collapsed last autumn.

Faced with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hays will however be renegotiating rents on the premises and taking up an extension on the date by which it could walk away from some leases without incurring costs, and possibly look to extend it further.

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, Hays Travel owners John and Irene Hays also said they would not be re-opening their retail estate “with a big bang” on June 15, when the Government has said non-essential retail outlets may begin trading again.

Irene Hays said: “I’ve just signed off the rental agreements for a further eight [ex-Thomas Cook shops] so that’s going on. We had a report yesterday that the new signage is going up. Every single week, we have six, seven, eight, nine of the new signs.” She added: “At this point in time, we do not have any plans to stop or stall that process at all.”

But she added:  “We don’t know how long this [pandemic] is going to go on for, and in relation to some of the rents, we have gone back for a further negotiation with our landlords [to get the rents lowered] so we’re working through that process.”

John Hays added: “The world has changed. Three months ago, we were absolutely delighted with our Thomas Cook acquisition – and we still are. We don’t regret making the decision but obviously, we need to keep re-evaluating things. But, at this moment in time, in terms of shop closures or anything of that nature, there’s nothing specific. We’re doing what any prudent business would do. We’re evaluating the situation but there’s no specific plans whatsoever.”

Asked about the looming July date by which Hays would have to make a decision on whether to keep or walk away from some units, Irene Hays explained: “The deal with Thomas Cook was that we had a license to operate in the first instance for nine months. We did the deal on October 1, 2019 so that would have taken us to July. But we also had an option to extend that for three months, so we will definitely have the extension for three months. But because these are such exceptional circumstances it’s likely that, if we needed to, we would go back and seek a further extension if that were possible.”

The pair said they were “in no rush” to re-open stores on June 15. John Hays said: “We’ve always prided ourselves on listening to and working closely with our staff. We’re doing surveys, sampling what our people think. We’re not in a rush to necessarily be the first. Things are working well having people working from home.”

He added that some branches would “probably” open on that date, but only where staff really wanted it, and Hays could be sure it was safe for staff and customers.

“We understand from our staff’s point of view that some of them want to get back working with their team, and where they can all get safely to work and be together again. Where they want it, we will do that, obviously in a safe fashion. But at the minute, we are still evaluating things and we’re not going to rush it. And we’re certainly not going to force any of our staff to do anything that they don’t want to do,” he promised.

Irene Hays added that many staff had concerns over how the return of schools this week could go, while, adding: “We still have lots of people who have lots of caring responsibilities, and until there’s more certainty, until we’re all very comfortable about the security for the staff and security for our customers, we’re [re-opening] on a gradual basis. But it’s not going to be big bang.”

John Hays said they had “thoroughly sampled” Northern Ireland, where they have about 20 shops.

“We thought that would be good sample size to have an in-depth survey, and I’m pretty certain it won’t be a big bang opening,” he confirmed.