A bingo boss has launched a scathing attack on ‘illogical’ rules that have forced sites to close in some Covid hotspots – but not others.
John O’Reilly, whose company Rank Group owns 77 Mecca bingo halls and 51 Grosvenor casinos, said it was ‘impossible’ to plan ahead when venues are shut ‘on a whim’.
The 60-year-old pointed out that while bingo was closed in Blackpool in Lancashire, it remains open across Merseyside, even though both regions are under the toughest coronavirus curbs.
Mecca Bingo owner Rank Group is preparing to close more sites in Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire after the regions became the latest to be placed under Tier Three rules
‘It makes zero sense,’ said O’Reilly, a former Ladbrokes executive who has been in charge of FTSE 250 member Rank since 2018.
‘I can open my bingo halls in Liverpool. But I have to shut my bingo hall in Blackpool. We have been clumsily and inadvertently caught up in misdirected measures that do nothing to suppress the virus, but which have put thousands of jobs and livelihoods at risk.’
Warning that closures and curfews ‘are putting the entire sector at risk’ as well as wasting taxpayers’ money, O’Reilly raised the alarm over the wellbeing of his staff, many of whom now face a bleak winter without work.
‘The impact on colleagues is immense,’ he told the Mail. ‘They are bereft frankly. We’re left in the bizarre situation where we’re contributing to the Treasury in Southport by generating revenues but relying on Treasury support in Blackpool by virtue of being shut down.’
Rank is preparing to close more sites in Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire after the regions became the latest to be placed under Tier Three rules.
While the Merseyside bingo halls have been allowed to stay open, Rank will close four more Mecca sites in Greater Manchester tomorrow, in Oldham, Rochdale, Sale and Bolton.
It is still awaiting clarity as to whether three Mecca sites in South Yorkshire – in Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham – can stay open.
At the Grosvenor business, Rank has already closed its casino in Blackpool and in Liverpool as well as two in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh.
A further six Grosvenor casinos will close across Greater Manchester at 10pm tonight – including two in the city centre and four more in Salford, Stockport, Didsbury and Bolton.
Cardiff and Swansea will shut tomorrow and Sheffield will likely close its doors on Saturday. Rank’s remaining casinos are still open, but subject to the 10pm curfew, which O’Reilly says is hammering the business.
Unlike in pubs and restaurants, more than half of revenues at Grosvenor casinos come after 10pm. O’Reilly has unsuccessfully offered to shut the bars in order to stay open.
‘Bars and pubs are aggrieved about curfew,’ said O’Reilly. ‘They’ve lost a little bit of their day’s trade. But in a casino, it’s savage. The curfew is having a crippling impact on our business with no public health benefit that I can see.’
He went on: ‘It seems wholly illogical that in Blackpool I can go to the door of the Grosvenor casino, which is on one side of the seafront and it’s shut, and I can turn and cross the road and walk into a public house serving steak and kidney pies and pints of lager and it’s heaving with people.
‘Shutting businesses down on what appears to be a bit of a whim just is another example of how all of this ceases to make much sense.’
Frustration: Rank Group boss John O’Reilly said it was ‘impossible’ to plan ahead when venues are shut ‘on a whim’
The Rank share price doubled in value in 2019 and the business was still ‘flying’ in February. But its sites were shut on March 20 as the pandemic swept the country and 90 per cent of its staff – or around 7,000 workers – were furloughed.
As lockdown took its toll, profits for the 12 months to the end of June fell 66 per cent to £9.4million and revenues slipped 8 per cent to £638million. And the workforce has shrunk from 7,700 to just under 7,200.
Rank invested heavily in making its sites as safe as possible – including £2million on screens in its casinos. Every chip is cleaned after a customer touches it, and cards are ‘single use’ or only touched by one dealer before being thrown away.
Getting Mecca bingo clubs ready to resume business was rather easier. ‘In Mecca, we have got vast venues, they are enormous,’ said O’Reilly. ‘I joke that our customers in Mecca have been social distancing for years.’
But with rules around the country tightening, many workers face a winter relying on taxpayer support rather than an income from work.
O’Reilly yesterday wrote to Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London – where Rank has eight casinos and six bingo clubs – to get the 10pm curfew lifted and boost business.
‘Our understanding of the curfew is that it was implemented to reduce the incidence of mainly young-adult drinking late into the evening and spreading the virus through failing to maintain appropriate social distancing,’ O’Reilly said in the letter.
‘The average age of our casino customers is 48 and the average age of our bingo customers is 57.
The average spend on food and drink, per person, per visit, in one of our casinos is £4.20. In our bingo clubs it is £2.40. It is simply not the case that our venues are places where people come to drink.’
Despite this, the shutters are coming down once again.