John O’Reilly: It’s time for the Government to review their decision and let us reopen our casinos as soon as possible
It’s been a baffling week to date, in many respects: as the second biggest bingo operator in the UK, we were delighted when the Government gave us the thumbs-up to reopen our Mecca bingo venues in England from 4th July. We had worked hard together with the Bingo Association to ensure our COVID-secure guidelines were in line with government guidance. As we had hoped and anticipated, we received the green light.
We’ve worked every bit as hard with our casino peers and the BGC to ensure we were in an equally strong position to secure the reopening of our Grosvenor casinos in England from the same date. The very supportive officials at DCMS were involved every step of the way and we incorporated their constructive feedback to present a comprehensive set of guidelines, over and above what we believe is required by the authorities and expected by our colleagues and customers.
Being excluded from the 4th July tranche of businesses, therefore, came as a blow.
We’re struggling to understand the rationale but rather than dwell on the injustice of the decision, I am keen to encourage members of the government and key decision-makers to come and witness, first-hand, what we are able to safely guarantee for colleagues and customers.
All of our casinos in England have been fully kitted out with social distancing and other safety measures. We’ve installed perspex dividers between all machines (gaming machines and electronic roulette) and have created perspex screens between seated positions at blackjack and roulette tables, as well as at bars. The plans that we have committed to for the handling and cleaning of chips along with the disposal of cards are designed to provide maximum reassurance for customers. All our social distancing signage is going up and hand sanitiser stations have been installed. We’ve spent considerable time, money and effort in the past 3 months preparing our casinos for the safest possible reopening. Customers will not visit venues which they consider to be unsafe and it is very much our job to provide environments which will reassure both our colleagues and our customers by being as safe as they possibly can be. Right now, our COVID-safe casinos are all dressed up, but our loyal and patient customers have nowhere to go.
It’s crucial that the Government, not least HM Treasury, understands the impacts of keeping our business and our colleagues on the sidelines.
We’ve been enormously grateful for government support, primarily through the CJRS, but in order to ready ourselves for reopening we have had to put costs back into the business. At Rank, we are burning cash at a rate of £10 million per month, even accounting for digital revenues. For every day that our Grosvenor casinos remain closed, the liquidity on our balance sheet is being drained. At the same time, we remain reliant on the Government’s furlough payments for the vast majority of our 4600 Grosvenor colleagues which is costing c.£1.5 million every week. Whilst we remain closed our casinos are obviously not contributing to tax receipts which, pre-lockdown, were in the region of £1.5 million per week. We are every bit as keen as the Chancellor is to get colleagues out of furlough, back to work safely, and start generating revenues which will deliver tax receipts to Treasury and get the cash flow moving in the right direction.
Providing we can reopen as soon as possible, with the support of Unite and the GMB, our intention is to bring all of our colleagues back to work, utilising the part-time furlough arrangement and, in doing so, we would still hope to avoid any redundancies during the coming months where we can assess and rebuild customer demand. Obviously, this plan is harder and harder to execute with every week that passes with our casinos still shuttered up.
In short, we are asking the Government to quickly review the decision to keep casinos closed, to recognise the safety measures that are in place including our ability to identify every customer on our premises and who they may have interacted with, and to include us – as soon as possible – when the next opportunity for reopening is discussed. In doing so, we’ll swiftly bring colleagues back to work who are itching to get back to work, we’ll give customers an ultra-safe and rewarding experience in our venues, and we’ll start to reverse the economic burden that is costing both government and our business more and more with each passing day.
John O’Reilly is CEO of Rank (owner of Grosvenor Casinos and Mecca Bingo)