Covid-19 has changed the way we behave in so many different ways.
Businesses closed their doors in mid-March, unsure if they would ever open again, as the country entered lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, billions of pounds have been pumped into businesses to try and prevent a complete collapse of the economy. In spite of this, every day we hear of further cuts to jobs, and of businesses that have been unable to weather the storm.
Although this disease has not gone away, community infection is at its lowest levels since the lockdown began and, like many people, I had very much looked forward to going back to the job I love as manager of a Scotbet betting shop.
Like all businesses that were scheduled to reopen in Stage 2 of Scotland’s lockdown easing, we had prepared our shop to be fully Covid-19 compliant. Social distancing measures were implemented, and hand sanitising stations have been fitted in every shop. As staff, we recognise the importance of keeping ourselves and our customers safe.
To people who do not use them, betting shops are shrouded in mystery, and misinformation. Betting is enjoyed by over two-thirds of the adult population in Scotland, and all but a tiny number do so in a responsible manner. Times have moved on massively from the days when opening a betting shop door would result in large plumes of smoke billowing out, along with language that would turn the air blue.
Rules and regulations have never been stricter. The industry has done so much to improve its working practices and shops are mostly now modern, spacious places where people meet and enjoy some time with friends.
The staff that I know genuinely care about their customers and their wellbeing, and the community in general. Many staff embark on charity initiatives for their local areas and I’m very proud that my shop has raised well over £10,000 in my time as manager.
A well-run betting shop is a place where people know each other’s first name, and staff take the time to get to know their customers, and how to look after them. I believe most shops are like this. While I don’t expect plaudits, I really do feel that I work in an industry that deserves respect.
Betting shops in the rest of the UK have opened their doors to their customers again, and customers have responded positively. As you would expect, business is down, but the service is there for those who want to use it.
In Scotland, however, the situation is different. We have been seen restrictions imposed on us which simply do not exist in betting shops elsewhere in the UK.
Firstly, we must not show live sport on our screens. This farcical decision means that a customer can come in and bet on an upcoming event, but can’t stay to watch the outcome.
We have also been told we must not have any machines switched on. This includes self-service terminals that actually reduce contact between people, something which is surely to be welcomed in a pandemic.
Thirdly, we are told that we must not have any seating in the customer area. Regardless of a customer’s condition, we are not permitted to offer them a seat, a ludicrous decision given that some of our client base are older.
As a betting shop manager I am trained to look out for people who are not yet of an age to gamble. We have a strict ‘Think 21’ policy where anyone who we suspect is not that age is challenged for identification. We have a duty to uphold the law and we do so every day.
We are also trained to spot the signs of problem gambling and taught techniques in how to approach these people and alert them to the fact that they may need help. It is the morally responsible thing to do. The Gambling Commission can and do check on this regularly. We also have policies in place that identify serious crime. All of this is done on a daily basis to ensure the safety of our customers.
So why is it that the Scottish government cannot trust betting shop staff, who work through all these regulations, to manage the capacity of their shops and maintain social distancing, just as every other shop on the High Street does?
The impact from Covid-19 on business was catastrophic, but as we attempt to re-establish our businesses, the biggest threat to the bookmaking industry in Scotland now comes not from the virus, but from a policy that is simply irrational. The first week of opening was met with disbelief from customers who can’t understand why, in the Scottish Borders, the service they get in their local bookie is so vastly inferior to that just a few miles over the border.
We have a shop in Gretna, run by my colleague Lesley, who is so enthusiastic. I spoke to her one afternoon and she was close to tears. Having spent so much effort getting her shop ready for customers, they decided that they would continue going to Carlisle for as long as she could not show live races. As the bookmakers there opened two weeks earlier, they had made the trip south to bet on Royal Ascot, and they have continued doing so. Many have told Lesley they’ll be back as soon as the live pictures return to our screens, but we have no idea when that will be.
This uncertainty adds insults to the financial injury of the past four months, during which betting shops in Scotland have been denied the rates relief offered to betting shops in England, support that is desperately needed after months of generating no income. In addition, the Scottish Government has refused to offer grant support for betting shops – worth £25,000 – even though support was offered for similar sectors, including amusements, bingo halls, entertainment centres, race courses and racetracks.
Unfortunately, given the drastic impact the restrictions in shops have had, many well-run and long-established premises will close. For many it is simply unviable to continue to trade and jobs will be lost at a time when families can least afford it. My own shop has seen a greater than 60% drop in business, meaning we have had to keep willing workers furloughed. These are colleagues who want to get back to contributing to the economy, not receiving payments from the Government, but we literally have no choice. This has to change, but as yet, we haven’t had even the slightest indication of when that will be.
It is shambolic for the Scottish government to expect our industry to trade in such a way. They seem hellbent on the destruction of an industry that employs thousands and pays millions in tax, and I cannot understand why. I can’t comprehend why we have been treated so differently to our colleagues elsewhere in the UK, and why our customers are thought of so poorly.
I plead with the Scottish government to respect Scottish bookmakers and their customers and ease these ludicrous restrictions before it is too late.
Andy Bennett was UK Betting Shop Manager of the Year in 2011. His Selkirk shop won third prize in the 2018 Community Betting Shop of the Year awards