- Most UK retail bookmakers have been closed since November 2020 due to the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 2020 was doubly tough for retail bookmakers as more than 460 have shut down due to the lockdown and a seismic shift to online betting.
- Prime Minister Boris Johnson will allow bookie shops to reopen from April 12 with bingo halls and casinos to follow on May 17.
The British retail bookmaking industry was facing very challenging market conditions before the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every other retail gaming provider in the world they are trying to remain relevant despite the seismic shift to online betting. British bookmakers have another enemy from which they’re constantly under siege–the nanny state left in their own country. Great Britain’s Labour party reflexively tries to outlaw or hyper-regulate any component of the gaming industry that shows a profit. This is the same group that is always clamoring about needing more jobs, particularly in the inner city. At the same time, they’ve done everything in their power to destroy an industry that provides employment to more than 100,000 people.
The British bookmaking industry has historically been centered around High Street Kensington. The collateral damage on the economy from the misguided war against retail bookmaking is evident just by looking around. 460 retail bookmakers in the London area have closed down this year continuing a multi-year trend that has seen hundreds shut down annually. In 2019 alone UK bookmaking giant William Hill closed 700 retail shops across the country and with them 4,500 jobs. There’s plenty of negative externalities beyond the lost jobs and revenue–one big problem now is retail vacancies. Here’s what the Royal Borough of Kensington And Chelsea’s website said about the situation in context of revitalizing the area:
There is a lot of concern locally about the number of empty shops in the High Street. Whilst at 9% (2018) this vacancy level is in line with London and UK averages, some of the empty shops like Tesco and the corner opposite Whole Foods Market have been very noticeable and detract from the appearance of the High Street.
Another detraction has been the hoardings around the Lancer Square redevelopment and the former Odeon cinema, and the ones going up on the Boots building, together with scaffolding over Japan House to Marks & Spencer. Our High Street is not looking its best at the moment but this investment means that new opportunities will emerge.
You don’t need to be an economist to understand the downward spiral caused by job loss, retail vacancy and urban blight. Fewer workers in an area hurts businesses of every sort from coffee shops to dry cleaners. A commercial area with a high percentage of empty retail properties quickly becomes run down and the downward spiral continues as shoppers stay away in favor of more vibrant–and safer–areas.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC FURTHER DEVASTATES AN INDUSTRY UNDER SIEGE
The British retail bookmaking industry had plenty of problems before and they’ve taken a brutal blow from the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns. The late 2020 resurgence of the pandemic forced the closure of over 3,000 bookmakers during the holiday season–typically one of the busiest times of the year.
When the bookmakers have been able to open they’ve on balance done a decent job establishing and enforcing COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as social distancing, capacity limits and mask mandates. The nanny state left greatly resented the fact that they were open at all during the pandemic as they are not ‘essential businesses’. Other gaming related businesses have also taken a hit such as horse tracks, casinos, etc. All of this further exacerbates the economic blow from the pandemic and lockdowns.
There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has released his ‘road map’ out of the lockdown and as part of that non-essential retail is penciled in to reopen on April 12. Retail betting shops fall under this category though not other gaming businesses such as bingo halls and casinos. They’re hoping to reopen in the third phase of the roadmap starting on May 17. Obviously, these are contingent on positive COVID-19 numbers and Prime Minister Johnson openly affirms that any type of resurgence will result in him ‘slamming on the brakes’ for the reopening scheme.
CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM FOR UK BOOKMAKERS AND THE BROADER BRITISH ECONOMY
The reopening will be done in a methodical fashion with five weeks between each phase. This will allow officials to survey the results of the relaxed restrictions as well as to take stock of the COVID-19 situation in the country. On March 8, schools will reopen and there will be limited socializing allowed between people of different households. Assuming all goes well, outdoor recreation facilities such as football pitches and golf courses will reopen.
The next stage will begin on April 12 with the return of ‘non-essential’ retail and personal care services. In addition to bookmaking shops other businesses that will reopen are barbers and fitness facilities (albeit for individual workout only). Pubs and restaurants will be able to serve outdoors for groups of six or less.
The gradual reopening of the economy will continue predicated on four criteria established by the government:
- The roll-out of vaccinations continues successfully.
- Vaccines are shown to be “sufficiently effective” in reducing hospitalisations and deaths for those vaccinated.
- Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS.
- New variants of coronavirus do not pose a risk to reopening the nation
Prime Minister Johnson also indicated that he’s hopeful that large scale events could return in early Summer with enhanced COVID safety measures. In an address to the House of Commons earlier this week he expanded on this theme:
“The turnstiles of our sports stadia will once again rotate, subject in all cases to capacity limits depending on the size of the venue. And we will pilot larger events using enhanced testing with the ambition of further easing of restrictions in the next step.”
“With every day that goes by this programme of vaccination is creating a shield around the entire population which means we’re travelling on a one-way road to freedom and we can begin to safely start our lives and with confidence.”
“Thanks to the vaccinations there’s light leading us to a spring and summer which I think will be seasons of hope, looking and feeling incomparably better and from which we won’t go back.”
Not quite Winston Churchill’s iconic ‘Never Surrender’ speech but you get the point.
Michael Dugher, chief executive of industry lobby the Betting and Gaming Council spoke of the importance of the bookmaking and gaming industry to the UK economy. The gaming industry paid £3.2 billion in taxes to the UK Exchequer in 2019-20 while the retail bookmaking business generates £2.8 billion for the national economy:
“Betting shops must be allowed to reopen alongside other non-essential retail. Last summer, when most betting shops were able to open, they showed that they have best-in-class anti-covid measures compared to any other part of the high street to protect customers and staff. It is vital that ministers allow them to play their part in stimulating the high street, along with other non-essential retailers.”
“Likewise, casinos are eager to help Britain get back on its feet. The night-time economy has taken a hammering during the pandemic and draconian restrictions, including the 10pm curfew, have made a difficult situation more desperate for many businesses. Ministers must allow casinos to reopen at the same time as other hospitality businesses including pubs and they must scrap the curfew. It didn’t work last summer and it won’t work now.”
“There will be no let-up in our commitment to safety, but we need the economy to open up again – not least if we are to revive the country’s tax take and fund vital public services like the NHS. But the thousands of people employed in betting shops and casinos deserve nothing less than a level playing field, so that everyone gets the same opportunities to recover.”
Hopefully, the reopening will continue apace and betting shops can get back to business. If all goes well, by the end of the summer the COVID-19 pandemic will be in the rear view mirror worldwide and the UK bookmaking industry can get back to trying to remain relevant despite the shift to online betting–that and fighting off Labour’s attempts to kill them off.