All high-street travel agencies were forced to close their shops and send staff home this week following the government’s unprecedented stay-at-home lockdown.

Travel firms described themselves as going into ‘hibernation’ after prime minister Boris Johnson’s edict on Monday evening for all retailers selling non-essential items to close in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Agencies immediately put contingency measures in place, with remote working facilities or virtual call centres where possible.

The move followed days of escalating government advice. Only last week many high-street chains began operating a closed-door policy following guidance on ‘social distancing’.

Hays Travel said its agents will be contactable online, by phone or on social media.

“We will continue to support our customers who need assistance with travelling home, rebooking, refunding or booking holidays for next year,” a spokeswoman said.

“Our thoughts are with all of those who are affected in so many ways in these worrying times.  We are very grateful for all the messages of support we have had and can assure everyone that we will be here to help throughout this time.”

Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson said the past week had been the most challenging the industry had ever experienced.

She said: “This decision [to close all branches] was made with a heavy heart but it has been made in a bid to safeguard our business and crucially, to protect the health and well being of our employees and customers.”

Barrhead has 95 stores and more than 1,000 employees, including those under its Brilliant Travel brand. The company is now working with a reduced team of staff, available online and on the telephone.

Kuoni, which has 48 high-street stores, has set up a virtual call centre to support customers, operated by a core group of retail staff from home, and an operational and support team to run the business over the coming months.

Chief executive Derek Jones said: “By taking these actions we can see ourselves through this crisis whilst maintaining the opportunity to rebound strongly when the Covid19 crisis is behind us.”

South Wales miniple Tailor Made Travel had already decided to shut most of its 20 stores ahead of the new advice.

Chief executive Simon Morgan said only a small team of staff were working remotely to answer customer queries as the company was not geared up for home working. Remote access will be set up for around 40 staff if needed.

He added: “We are ‘hibernating’ to manage costs as efficiently as we can. We recognise this is going to be the most expensive six months we have ever had and we have to behave responsibly.”

Polka Dot Travel’s 19 shops had been working behind closed doors until the lockdown. Operations director Mark Johnson said a “critical operations team” was now working from home, adding: “Health and safety comes first”.

Miles Morgan had eight of its 18 shops working from home from Monday night and was on course to have all working remotely by Tuesday night. “It is challenging for everyone with dogs, cats and kids and will take some getting used to, but as a nation, we are all in it together for a good while,” said managing director Miles Morgan.

Smaller agencies also set up remote working for staff where possible.

Viceroy Travel, a one branch agency in West Wickham, only has two of its four staff working from home. Two part-timers  are receiving a statutory allowance until the shop re-opens.

Manager Julie Baker said: “None of us expected this. We were already working behind closed doors.  People will understand but agents will look to Abta to put out the message agents are still working.”

Midcounties Co-operative shut its stores last week and redeployed staff to alternate roles in the business.