British bookmakers stand by COVID-19 restrictions

by Karina Chen Last Updated
Racehorse Image for Betting Shops

British highstreet bookmakers are bracing themselves for a third national lockdown in response to the coronavirus crisis that could keep betting shops closed into the spring of 2021.

A new variant of Covid-19, coupled with already high rates of infection across London and the Southeast, is spreading across the country, triggering concerns the UK government will impose a new nationwide lockdown.

Such measures will almost certainly result in UK bookmakers being forced to close their ‘non-essential’ betting shops for a third time in 12 months, much like hairdressers, estate agents, and craft stores.

And the industry is working to combat what will likely be severe negative effects on revenues into the new year.

Between 2018 and 2019 – before COVID struck – the UK’s annual gross gambling yield was at a steady £14.3bn, with much of the revenues coming from highstreet gaming. That was despite betting shops taking a revenue hit from the introduction of £2 bet limits on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

Yet with COVID still far from repressed around the world, there are estimates that the global gambling industry will have lost $80bn in 2020 because of the disease. Blood Horse report lockdowns have already cost the UK horse racing industry £12.5 million ‘through a combination of lost media rights and levy’.

BGC support lockdowns

Despite the impending national lockdown, though, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) remains fully behind any new measures.

In a statement to TMC, a BGC spokesperson said: “We fully support the determination of the UK Government and the devolved administrations to fight the spread of COVID-19 and protect our NHS.”

“The decision to put more areas in Tier 4 means that many more betting shops will have to close. This is another disappointment for our staff and customers, but we hope to be able to reopen safely once again as soon as possible.”

Bookmakers expected to ride out COVID

So what does the immediate future of British gambling look like? Well, bookmakers and casinos are not expecting to earn as much revenue in 2021 as they did in 2019. Indeed, revenues across UK bookmakers have actually fallen slightly from a £14.4bn peak in 2018.

But betting companies are unlikely to be left empty-handed by the end of the year. Many have already pushed to cover the impact the UK’s various lockdowns have had on staff. William Hill repaid £24m in furlough funds over the summer and covered staff wages despite them being off work. Furthermore, the introduction of the FOBT limits means revenues from highstreet betting shops aren’t as important to the bookmakers as it once was.

Instead, the coronavirus has aided the growth in online gambling. Even though 5,681 betting shops closed in England, decisions by the UK government such as to bring professional sports back – despite the lack of crowds in attendance – means online sports betting has grown even in lockdown.

Notably, the Gambling Commission has found a direct correlation between online gaming and nationwide restrictions. When the lockdown was eased in the summer of 2020, the average length of casino slot sessions decreased.

Transition to online betting

There are also positives for bookmakers who have successfully transferred in-person bettors to their online platforms, as internet gaming is less costly for the bookies. There are fewer overheads such as rent and staff to pay for, while addictive and problem gambling habits can be easier tracked online.

JenningsBet decided to jump the gun and transition their focus to online when the FOBT limits were introduced. That decision will almost certainly have helped them keep costs low during the pandemic.

What 2021 will bring remains to be seen, but it is likely that bookmakers will rely less and less on the highstreet. This comes at a time when the Gambling Commission conduct their review into online betting and how the 2005 Gambling Act can be updated.

Considerations to bring in bet limits on online slot machines – some of which offer a maximum bet of £200 per spin – and monthly deposit limits are supposedly in the pipeline. And if highstreet bookmakers continue to be closed into the summer of 2021 then an even greater focus will point towards how online gambling companies are operating.

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