Michael Dugher is CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). This is a sponsored post by the BGC.
Regular readers of ConservativeHome may be surprised, even aghast, to see a former Labour MP, Shadow Secretary of State and adviser to Gordon Brown, writing in this forum. Corbynites, or the dregs of what is left of that calamitous project, will be less surprised, but certainly some of my former comrades on the Labour benches might raise an eyebrow too. But these are not normal times.
The Covid pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge for governments across the world. The human cost has been staggering, tragic and truly heartbreaking, with more than 18 million infected and 700,000 deaths worldwide.
The financial cost is still being calculated, but will likely have a bearing on the world’s economies for years to come.
To give the Government credit, its initial response to the economic challenges posed by Covid-19 was sure footed. The rescue package – from the furlough scheme to business rates support – was commensurate to the scale of the challenge. Not since the creation of the welfare state have we seen such an interventionist government – and a Conservative one at that. As I say, these are not normal times.
More recently, though, the Government has made a series of missteps that have begun to raise concerns in business circles like the one I represent now.
The latest example was the decision last week, announced at the last minute by the Prime Minister, to delay the piloting of certain live sport with attendances, plus reopening of some indoor entertainment venues such as casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks that were due to open on August 1.
As someone who has worked at the heart of government, I know all too well that governing is a delicate balancing act, not least during a global pandemic that none of us have ever experienced. But there are certain core principles that should always inform government action – clarity and consistency. Both are in short supply.
Messages like “go on holiday”, “get back to work” and “eat out” have tangoed clumsily with parallel appeals to “avoid unnecessary travel”, “stay at home” and even “lose weight”.
The u-turn on casinos reopening is the latest example. The decision was all the more perplexing given that they had gone to extraordinary lengths and invested millions of pounds to ensure their venues were Covid-secure, with strict social distancing measures, hygiene protocols and sophisticated track and trace systems in place at venues across England.
The Government’s most senior health officials gave just over 100 casinos the green light, long after bingo halls and amusement arcades, never mind restaurants and 47,000 pubs, after their visit to a casino in London. The decision to reopen was announced by the Prime Minister on July 17.
The sense of relief was palpable across the industry. Staff, fearful of redundancy, were looking forward to returning to work for the first time in over four months and managers readied to give their businesses a go, even in the toughest of circumstances. Then, less than 12 hours before they were due to open their doors, England’s casinos were told they must remain shuttered in order to keep the virus under control.
We fully understand the Government’s determination to control the “R” infection rate, which is rising in parts of England. But public health officials and the Government’s scientific advisers have already confirmed that casinos pose what they described as a “negligible” risk to health, given their substantial investment in Covid safety protocols, and their relatively small number. What happened to “following the scientific advice?”
And a reminder again: there are 110 casinos in England, compared to 47,600 pubs. There are nearly nine times as many Wetherspoons alone as there are casinos.
In recent weeks, we have seen localised Covid spikes in parts of the North West of England and before that in Leicester. The right response was a localised lockdown, not a national shutdown. If there is a spike in Greater Manchester, why is it ok for pubs and restaurants to remain open in Greater Manchester but a casino in Bristol, where levels of Covid are low, must close?
In his July 17 statement, the Prime Minister ruled out the need for such a blanket national lockdown. Instead, the Government would control outbreaks of the virus through “targeted, local action.” By denying casinos the right to reopen, not for the first time, the Government is at odds with its own policy.
This illogical and inconsistent ruling will have a damaging – perhaps permanent – impact on casinos and the thousands of staff they employ. It couldn’t come at a worse time for an industry that is grappling with mounting and unsustainable costs.
A sector that contributes £140 million to the tourist economy and £300 million in taxes now stands on a cliff edge because of the Government’s decision to taper furlough payments and force employers to pay National Insurance and pension contributions, even though they remain closed. Some businesses may not survive. Around 6,000 workers – half of all casino industry jobs in England – are facing the dole.
While ministers are rightly focused on the health of the nation, no government can lose sight of the health economy. Remember when David Cameron and George Osborne used to say “a strong NHS depends on a strong economy?” The R infection rate has to be balanced against the two other Rs – recovery versus recession.
The consequences of getting this wrong are being felt in businesses across the country – stuck in a Covid no man’s land, forced to remain shuttered while bearing the everyday costs of business. What’s worse, it’s costing the Treasury around £5 million a week to keep casinos closed and their workers at home, when they could be raking in £5 million in much needed tax revenues.
Earlier this week, the decision to keep casinos closed was criticised by both Ed Miliband in the Guardian and Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. I know these are not normal times, but seemingly uniting Miliband and Littlejohn in one common purpose is taking things too far.