John Heaton

John Heaton

The Scottish Government is treating bookmakers and their customers with contempt

John Heaton, Scotbet, writes:

Three months ago, we brought the shutters down on our 30 shops not knowing when they would open up again. It was the right thing to do.

Back then, Covid-19 cases were on the rise and it was clear that drastic measures were needed to bring the pandemic under control.

Now, with the worst out the outbreak hopefully behind us, it is also right that politicians in London and Edinburgh start to ease the country out of lockdown and try to get the UK back to something approaching normality.

Nearly two weeks ago, betting shops in England opened their doors for the first time since March. Rightly, they did so with strict measures in place to ensure the safety of their staff and customers. These included sneeze screens at the till, hand sanitisers and clear markings reinforcing the need for social distancing. Gaming machines less than two metres apart are separated by dividing screens, thereby preventing any customers from coming into contact.

Having visited some of them myself, I know that they have succeeded in being Covid-secure while also ensuring that customers can still have an enjoyable experience when they come in to have a bet.

Punters can still have a seat and watch live horse and dog racing on the TV screens – while ensuring that they are socially-distanced from others in the shop.

Sadly, the same cannot be said north of the Border. We have finally been given the go-ahead by the Scottish Government to re-open on 29 June. But for our loyal customers, it will look and feel very different.

For a start, they can forget about being able to take the weight off their feet as they check the form in the paper, or after putting a bet on, because there won’t be any chairs. And they’ll be sorely disappointed if they want to watch a race, because our TVs won’t be allowed to show it.

According to the Scottish Government, these measures are designed to prevent “clusters of people gathering to watch live sport”. Watching live sport in a betting shop? Perish the thought!

We’ve also been told that we need to switch off all our gaming machines, even though they can be used to put on a bet – something that eliminates the need for contact with staff and therefore reduces the risk of passing on the virus.

Our competitors have signalled that, despite these crazy rules, they will re-open their shops. That means we will have to as well because we simply can’t afford to let our customers go elsewhere and run the risk of them never coming back. But the simple fact is that, unless the Scottish Government changes its mind, we’ll be running at a loss.

That’s no way to treat a business which employs 100 people across Scotland and pays millions of pounds a year in tax.

It seems to me that this policy has been devised by someone who has never been in a betting shop. Dozens of customers hanging around watching the TV is a thing of the past. People come in, watch a race a leave again.

It also means that customers who like a bet on the greyhounds – about 20% of our clientele – won’t bother coming in at all because we won’t be able to show their races.

The whole thing is just crazy, and a real slap in the face for an industry which has done its bit for the national effort to tackle Covid-19. I’d love to think that, even at this late stage, the Scottish Government will think again. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

John Heaton is the chairman of Scotbet, Scotland’s largest chain of independent bookmakers.

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