Midcounties Co-operative Travel is to temporarily close its 57 Co-operative Travel branches with agents redeployed to non-travel parts of the business.

Some branches will be converted into virtual call centres or administration centres with staff to handle enquiries and bookings over email, phone and social media.

The company said its actions will “improve its capacity and deal with queries as safely and effectively as possible during the current coronavirus pandemic”.

Chief retail officer for Midcounties, Alistair Rowland, said the decision would help protect travel agents jobs.

“The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is completely unprecedented and all businesses within Midcounties Co-operative have been affected in different ways,” he said.

“Our travel division is suffering along with the rest of the travel industry but the teams in our food business are extremely busy right now, looking after members and prioritising vulnerable and older customers.

“It therefore makes sense for us, where the locations match up, to temporarily move our Co-operative Travel team members to our Co-operative Food branches, in order to safeguard their employment and support an area of the business where there is a significant demand for extra resource. Our pharmacies and funeral homes are in a similar position.

“This move will help to protect our travel colleagues’ jobs and finances at this challenging time, whilst ensuring we can continue to deliver the high levels of service to our travel members and customers, albeit by telephone and technology in the short-term.”

Natalie Turner, head of branches for Co-operative Travel, added: “We’re extremely proud of our Co-operative Travel colleagues and the way they have responded to the coronavirus crisis.

“They have gone above and beyond to look after their customers during this uncertain time and now some are rolling up their sleeves to support the other divisions of Midcounties Co-operative, who desperately need those extra pairs of hands.”

Midcounties added that, “when the time is right”, Co-operative Travel will re-open all branches alongside the “biggest media launch in the company’s history”.