Retailers are banding together to call on the government for exemption from business rates if shops are forced to close because of the coronavirus outbreak, and have renewed demands for far-reaching reform.

A letter to prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak, coordinated by fashion groups Arcadia and River Island, is being circulated to other retailers today and is understood to have won wide-ranging support from many of the industry’s biggest names. It is likely to be sent today or tomorrow, and comes in the wake of store closures and job losses at Dixons Carphone and the likely administration of Laura Ashley.

The letter draws attention to widespread store closures in Europe as the coronavirus has spread and says: “Whilst we hope that the government will be able to avoid this in the UK, our understanding is that it is probable that we will be in the same position. In this respect, will you confirm that should the UK enter into a full lockdown, the government will instruct all local authorities in the UK to consider premises as essentially being empty, and as such, having no rating liability until they reopen?

“Alternatively, please confirm that the existing provisions around occupations being ‘prohibited by law’ will be made available so that rate payers can claim appropriate relief.”

The retailers asked for additional support once the coronavirus crisis is under control, such as the removal of downwards transition, annual revaluations and a lowering of the uniform business rate.

They warned that rates must be “reduced urgently to a fairer level or more businesses will fail”.

The retailers said the current system is “not fit for purpose” and concluded: “If this issue is ignored in the short term, the proposed review of the rating system, and the High Street Fund, is likely to come too late for many of our major retailers.”