Britain’s casinos have slammed the Prime Minister’s decision to U-turn on plans to ease lockdown restrictions tomorrow as “sickening”, warning that business hangs in the balance with venues forced to shut over the critical summer months.
In a press conference today, Boris Johnson said plans to reopen venues tomorrow will be pushed back until at least 15 August, following a sharp spike in coronavirus infections.
Casinos, comedy clubs, sports venues and leisure centres will now be forced to remain shuttered for at least a fortnight, following more than five months of closure during lockdown.
“We should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control,” said Johnson. “I’m really sorry about that but we simply cannot take the risk.”
Simon Thomas, chief executive and owner of London’s Hippodrome Casino, told City A.M. he felt “somewhere between crying and being sick”.
“It’s appalling. We’re getting this news 12 hours from being allowed to reopen, when we’re fully ready to go,” said Thomas.
“Businesses like ours are complex machines — they can’t just turn them on and off. It’s taken two weeks to get the building up and ready to go and to take hundreds of staff off furlough. We’ve got bars, restaurants and ATMs all stocked and ready.”
The Hippodrome Casino was opened in 2012 by then-mayor of London Boris Johnson, who described it as “yet another ringing endorsement of London as a great place to invest” and praised it for creating “hundreds of new jobs for the capital”.
However, Thomas said the fresh lockdown restrictions mean business is becoming “increasingly difficult as furlough is being reduced”.
“How do we live with the uncertainty of this dilly dallying as to whether or not we can or can’t open? I don’t envy the government but I do think they should be logical, consistent and follow the evidence rather than these knee-jerk reactions.”
Sarah Sculpher, chief marketing officer for Caesars Entertainment, which owns London’s Empire Casino in Leicester Square, said the announcement today “beggars belief”.
Sculpher told City A.M: “We’re just hugely disappointed. We were expecting perhaps that the Manchester casino might be closed down and a more regionalized approach would be taken.
“But I think to find out that in less than 24 hours that all of the businesses are closing is a huge shock, especially considering we’re an industry already under pressure.”
“It just beggars belief really,” Sculpher added. “All of the employees were brought back on Monday for training to go through all of the new protocols and the operational measures that we’ve put in place.
“All our risk assessments have been signed off by the correct authorities and we were given the good to go symbol from Public Health England.”
Sculpher added that Caesars Entertainment’s casinos had more robust social distancing measures than those seen in venues already allowed to reopen.
“Our track and trace system was ready to go — and it doesn’t just tell you who was in the building that day, it tells you at what time they were in there and what part of the property they were in.”
“We potentially have to put those staff back on furlough and have already had to make some restructures and cuts in business,” she added.
Michael Dugher, chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, echoed Sculpher’s comments, adding there was “no evidence” casinos pose a higher risk of spreading coronavirus than other venues.
In a statement on Twitter, Dugher said: “What happened to the government’s local lockdown strategy? Why should a casino business remain closed in Bristol in the south-west where Covid is low, because there’s a spike in greater Manchester?”
Dugher added that the U-turn posed a “big threat to jobs”.
Casinos, comedy clubs and other venues in the night time economy make up the UK’s fifth-biggest industry, according to data from the Night Times Industries Association (NTIA).
Britain’s night time venues account for at least eight per cent of the UK’s employment and contribute annual revenues of more than £66bn.
Today’s decision by the PM will likely affect London in particular.
London’s night time economy alone directly supports 723,000 jobs — one in eight in the capital, according to the Office for National Statistics.
A spokesperson for Genting Casinos, which owns casinos in London’s Chinatown and Kensington, joined the chorus of venues venting their outrage at the short notice U-turn.
Genting told City A.M: “After weeks of meticulous planning, we find it incredible that we have been given less than 24 hours’ notice as to this change of plan, which in itself has caused huge damage to the business.”
The spokesperson added that every week Genting Casinos venues remained closed cost the firm more than £1.5m.
“This is clearly not sustainable, with more jobs and livelihoods being put at risk with every last minute change and delay… We absolutely urge the government to reconsider the blanket withdrawal of the furlough scheme from the affected industries who are still not permitted to re-open.”
Claire Walker, the British Chamber of Commerce’s co-executive director, slammed the PM’s decision to put the brakes on reopening venues as a “hammer blow to business”.
“While tackling the public health emergency must be the priority, these announcements — made at short notice — will be a hammer blow to business and consumer confidence at a time when many firms were just starting to get back on their feet,” she said.
“Businesses communities need as much clarity as possible from government if they are to plan ahead and rebuild their operations in the coming months.”