Simon Thomas: Curfews would be economically disastrous for casinos; the Government must have a rethink

16 Sep

Simon Thomas is chief executive of The Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square. This is a sponsored post by The Hippodrome Casino.

Boris Johnson opened the Hippodrome Casino in 2012, when he was still Mayor of London. It was therefore pretty ironic that he should be the one to effectively close our doors when, as Prime Minister, he announced the nationwide Covid lockdown in March.

We were glad to play our part at a time of national crisis, but were obviously delighted to finally be given the go-ahead to reopen again last month, along with casinos across England. It was recognition of all the hard work that had gone into making sure we were Covid-secure for the safe return of our staff and customers.

The measures we have put in place – from hand sanitisation stations and strict social distancing rules to Perspex screens sophisticated track and trace procedures – are the best in class among the whole entertainment, hospitality and leisure sector.

Opening our doors again meant that we have been able to make a contribution to the UK’s economic recovery, at a time when it has never been more vital. As Johnson showed when he cut the ribbon for us eight years ago, the Conservative Party understands that without businesses like ours providing good jobs and paying tax, there would simply be no economic recovery.

But while we are able to provide a top-class service for our customers again, things are definitely not back to normal. Across the casino sector, attendances since we re-opened varies between five and sixty per cent of pre-Covid levels. This is partly because of the 14-day quarantine rules, which have drastically reduced the number of tourists who come to these shores, and who make up a significant chunk of our traditional clientele. So clearly, our recovery is fragile.

That’s why talk of nationwide 10pm curfews for hospitality and leisure businesses as the number of Covid cases rises again has caused such alarm among our sector. Put simply, such a move would put our very existence – and the jobs of our 14,000 employees – at risk.

To understand why, you need to appreciate the unique nature of our business model. Unlike other sectors, we are hugely reliant on night-time trade. Casinos generate 50 to 70 per cent of their income after 10pm. If we were ordered to close our doors at that time, there would be no point in opening them at all. Such a curfew would be economically disastrous for casinos like mine, placing a huge question mark over our continued viability.

Given the high quality of our Covid security measures and the make-up of our customer base, such a move would be – in my opinion – utterly pointless. The average age of a casino visitor is 48, so if the purpose of a curfew is to halt the spread of the virus among the young, restrictions in our venues would seem illogical. In addition, most of our players are either on their own or in couples, well within the “Rule of 6” announced last week by the Prime Minister.

If ministers are still determined to go down the curfew path, night-time restrictions should only be imposed in parts of the country where Covid cases are high, rather than use the blunt instrument of a nationwide shutdown. Another possible approach could be to prevent us selling alcohol post-10pm. This would obviously be far from ideal, but certainly preferable to making us close our doors entirely.

However, if the Government did choose the nuclear option of a nationwide curfew, they would have to rethink their decision to end the furlough scheme next month, otherwise we would have no option but to authorise a wave of redundancies. Throughout lockdown, the furlough scheme was a vital lifeline, allowing us to continue employing thousands of men and women we would otherwise have had to let go.

Any further government-imposed restrictions on our ability to trade would need to be accompanied by some form of government support for the businesses affected. I fully appreciate that the taxpayer cannot continue to subsidise the wages of employees indefinitely, but the Chancellor should give consideration to sector-specific support to prevent the recession developing into something far, far worse.

The Hippodrome Casino is an iconic venue which has been around since 1900 and survived two world wars, the three-day week and other national crises. We now need the Government to respond in a positive way to ensure we are still trading after this one. If Johnson really is concerned about the health of our city centres, he simply cannot ignore our pleas for help.

Conservatives have always understood the importance of a healthy business sector creating the jobs and providing the tax revenue upon which the whole country relies. In these extraordinary times, we need the party to once again recognise our contribution to the economic – and physical – health of the nation, and do all it can to ensure our continued survival.