Covid-19 Surge Closes UK Gambling Again

An increase in the number of Covid-19 infections has prompted the government to shut down betting shops and casinos in Wales, Lancashire, Merseyside and elsewhere throughout the UK. The CEO of the trade group, the Betting and Gaming Council, Michael Dugher (l.) opposed the closures, arguing that the surge did not come from the gambling sector. Irish and Scottish bookmakers have also been hard hit.

Covid-19 Surge Closes UK Gambling Again

Responding to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the UK., Wales, Lancashire and Merseyside were forced to close non-essential businesses, including pubs betting shops and casinos. The restrictions will close 366 betting shops in Wales.

In some locales, casinos, bingo halls and betting shops were ordered closed on October 19, according to Gambling Insider.

The Betting and Gaming Council, the industry trade group, said the government needs to provide financial support for those affected by the lockdown. First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford indicated there will be a £300 million (US$394.4 million) economic fund to support businesses forced to close.

Each business covered by the small business rate relief will receive a £1,000 payment. Small and medium-sized retail, leisure and hospitality businesses will receive a one-off payment of up to £5,000, according to SBCNews.

Prior to the Wales decision, betting shops and casinos across Lancashire and Merseyside shuttered. The government has placed Lancashire in Tier 3 of its Covid-19 restrictions. This is the highest level of the new tiered structure, and imposes strict social distancing measures.

The lockdown has affected approximately 200 betting shops in Lancashire County and three casinos and a further 350 betting shops and six casinos in Merseyside, employing 2,300 people.

The shutdown, for an undetermined time frame, puts 1,100 out of work in Lancashire, according to iGaming Business. The shops pay £24 million a year in taxes, and £6.6 million to the British racing industry through horserace betting levy and media rights payments. The casinos pay £6 million in taxes each year.

The measures taken in Lancashire will be reviewed every four weeks. The county has received a package of support for £42 million out of the £58.2 million sought.

Similar closures will impact South Yorkshire, which went to Tier 3.

The lockdowns will remain in place until the locales can be downgraded to Tier 2, according to iGaming Business.

South Yorkshire’s betting shops employ over 1,000 and pay £24 million a year in taxes and £6 million in levy payments and media rights to racing, which is already struggling.

“The region’s three Covid-secure casinos employ 270 people and pay £11.2 million in tax to the Treasury every year. The government must come up with a financial package to ensure their long-term future,” BGC said.

Discussions between Greater Manchester and the government have stalled after lawyers and MPs requested additional financial support. Meanwhile, the BGC called for assistance through fall and winter. Downing Street offered a 67 percent furlough pay for those unable to work.

“Closing betting shops in Greater Manchester will deny the Treasury up to £54 million in tax, and deprive horseracing of vital millions in levy and media rights payments at a time when it is already suffering due to a lack of spectators,” the BGC said on Twitter.

Jonathon Swaine, the managing director of the Rank Group was more hard hitting.

“The enforced closure of our ultra Covid-secure casinos is senseless,” he says. “At first we thought that the decisions being made were arbitrary but it’s now clear that our casinos are being subjected to an aggressive and needless attack by decision makers who clearly understand nothing of just how safe casinos are and appear determined to damage the land-based betting and gaming industry for the sake of it. Venues such as pubs are able to remain open and serve alcohol if they also sell a meal, which leaves gambling venues as the only ones ordered by government to shut up shop. It is grossly unfair.

“As well as operating to the very highest Covid-secure standards with robust evidence to support that position, casinos support huge numbers of jobs while paying up to 50 percent tax rates to the Exchequer. We have offered to close our casino bars in exchange for permission to trade but are still being forced to close and we’re yet to see or hear of a single shred of evidence that supports that decision. It’s a targeted attack on betting and gaming premises, the tens of thousands of employees and customers in this sector and the time has come to call it out for what it is.”

Irish bookmakers face a six week lockdown. But horse and dog racing will continue. The measures, which results in Level 5 lockdown protocols, impact over 800 bookmakers throughout Ireland, according to SBCNews.

“The government’s decision to shut down all non-essential retail will have a very significant effect on our business. More importantly, it will impact our 1,500 loyal and hardworking retail employees as well as our valued customers,” BoyleSports said in a statement.

Over the past six months, BoyleSports has invested over €1 million (US$1.2 million) in making shops a safe environment for customers. “We have put up new screens on our counters and between machines, installed hand-sanitizing stations and have placed extensive signage in every store.”

The bookmaker hopes to reopen December 1.

Bar One bookmaker sponsors races for Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. But the betting shops will be closed even as the races continue, leading to a loss of media rights revenue, as well as furloughing 350 employees.

“It’s desperate but there are people who are much worse off,” Barney O’Hare, the bookmaker boss, told the Racing Post. “We just have to try and get through it and thank God we have the staff on board. The staff will be fully paid for the next six weeks and hopefully we’ll have customers back in time for Christmas.”

The primary consideration is the safety of the public, said Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Brian Kavanagh. “We have been racing for four and a half months now and it’s great that we can continue. The sales have also been affected and that’s another area we will need to focus on. When we are doing our budget for next year, we will take into account the impact that this is having on all of the various sectors within the industry and try and make the right decisions as we go forward.”

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced restrictions will be put in place in November. He also said temporary measures introduced earlier this month, will be extended a week beyond the initial 16 days. Measures include closing of casinos. On November 2, a new five tier virus alert system take effect.

“To try to interrupt this trajectory, we must act now,” Sturgeon said. “While the measures will feel like a backward step, they are in the interests of protecting our progress overall.”

Michael Dugher, BGC CEO, indicated a lack of evidence that bookmakers and casinos contributed to the resurgence.

“We understand the government’s need to tackle Covid, but they must balance that with the need to protect jobs,” he said. “From the beginning of the pandemic, betting shops and casinos have played their full role in the national effort to tackle this virus. It is therefore hugely disappointing that as they are starting to get back on their feet again, those venues in Merseyside and Lancashire have had the rug pulled from under them by the Prime Minister.”

In his letter to the Secretary of State, Dugher, said: “There are currently just over 6,700 shops employing nearly 40,000 staff across the country, the majority of which are female. The singling out of betting shops for closure is unfair, unnecessary and runs counter to the sensible approach the Government had previously adopted. This decision looks ill-informed, arbitrary, and along with plans to close COVID-secure casinos (that had offered to give up selling alcohol) it frankly looks anti-gambling industry.”

The BGC contacted local leaders in Tier 2 areas asking them to resist closure of betting shops and casinos without proof they spread the virus, according to SBCNews.

“I share 100 percent of the government’s determination to tackle the spread of Covid-19. The decision to close betting shops won’t help with that, but it does put in jeopardy an industry that will be much-needed to help power the economy and the Exchequer to recovery,” Dugher said.

The BGC has been fighting stricter measures on gambling venues for months, putting forward a number of compromises that have largely gone unheeded by the government.

“This decision shows evidence and science play no part,” Dugher said.