As we approach 2021, it’s clear that we are going to be living with the impact of Covid-19 for some time.
Notwithstanding the incredible efforts of our scientists and industry in coming up with a vaccine in record time and getting it distributed, people will continue to contract – and, sadly, die from – this terrible illness well into the New Year and probably beyond. Indeed, the virus may well be around for years, even decades, even if it becomes seasonal.
And that’s before we even begin to think about the economic damage the pandemic has wrought both in the UK and around the world. Repeated lockdowns and the resulting loss in output – with the state effectively paying people to stay at home – has left Western economies like our own staring into the abyss.
So it would be a particularly masochistic government that chose to intentionally damage an industry with a track record of creating jobs, attracting tourists and paying billions of pounds in tax every year. And yet, with the recent launch of the Gambling Review, there is a real danger that the current Conservative administration may be about to do just that.
I do support the review and believe it is high time that our gambling laws were modernised to reflect how technology has advanced in the past 15 years. I welcome the government’s commitment to tackling problem gambling and am heartened that they want it to be an evidence-led process.
But I do fear there is a real danger that some of the potential changes flowing from the review could have a detrimental impact on the industry and damage its ability to contribute to the post-pandemic recovery. The numbers are pretty clear: the betting and gaming industry employs 100,000 people and in normal times contributes £8.7bn a year in gross value added to the economy and over £3.2bn in tax to the Treasury.
Many of our much-loved sports – which have perhaps suffered more than most as a result of Covid-19 – are also hugely reliant on funding from the industry. Horse racing receives £350m a year through the betting levy, media rights and sponsorship, while betting companies spend more than £40m a year on the English Football League and its clubs.
Throw in the millions the industry gives to rugby league, snooker and darts in sponsorship – plus the £120m in extra tourism spend from casinos – and you soon realise its importance to the country. Furthermore, betting shops are an integral part of our stricken high streets and shopping parades.
At a time when unemployment is 1.7 million and rising, and the government is borrowing £20bn a month just to keep the lights on, anything that further damages a successful part of the economy must be avoided at all costs.
The simple truth is that we are going to have to coexist with Covid-19 for a long time to come. The government must ensure that we have all of the financial tools at our disposal to fund our cherished NHS while returning our economy to growth and keeping people in work. But they won’t do that by inflicting unnecessary pain on a key part of the economy, the betting and gaming industry.
John Spellar is the MP for Warley