“It is a perfect storm for gambling harm”: Reform advocates fear Covid-19 poses a significant threat to betting addiction

Leading voices aiming for gambling reform have expressed their concern for the influence that the Coronavirus pandemic could have on problem-gamblers. 

Matthew Gaskell, the Clinical Lead Psychologist of the NHS northern gambling clinics, believes that despite the forced closure of betting shops, online betting poses a significant threat to gambling addiction.

Back in March, as part of the NHS Northern Gambling Service, the Manchester clinic opened at Clipper Quay, which provides support for individuals who suffer from problem-gambling and their families.

Clinics have also opened in Leeds and Sunderland however, speaking to MM, Gaskell showed concern for the negative way in which self-isolation under government rules could encourage addictive gambling.

He said: “There is a group of people who are engaged in gambling related-harm right now and that’s their focus. Their focus isn’t on seeking support, the focus is on using more addictive products that we’re seeing advertised and promoted.

“We are concerned about virtual sport because the operators are now offering virtual horse racing constantly all day, much more than you get on a normal racing day.

“That is promoting a style of gambling that keeps people in play and continually gambling, one race after the other.

“We’re affected by the pandemic more broadly, a number of my staff team have been redeployed to the frontline critical areas.

“Whilst we’re all worried about the pandemic, it is a perfect storm for gambling harm, that’s for sure.”

Lockdown poses an unexpected threat to gamblers, within an industry that has built success on what Gaskell described as a “model of harm”.

In April, the Betting and Gaming Council said that the largest British gambling firms will remove their TV and radio advertising.

This sanction builds on recent antidotes to problem-gambling that have been implemented, such as banning the use of credit cards online and restricting stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals to £2.

However, Gaskell was concerned that the betting industry will always be ahead of the regulators, and new government legislation is required as opposed to individual policies.

He said: “We need a brand new gambling act (currently Gambling Act 2005), we need new legislation. It was really poor timing because it was before everybody got smartphones and the operators moved to online gambling.

“I want to try and work with the government and work with colleagues to make a much bigger difference more broadly because that’s where it really needs to be done. 

“The principle must be that people can only lose what they can afford to lose, that has to be the principle that the industry is built upon. But unfortunately, it’s built on this model of harm.

“For every person that I might be able to pluck out of the water, the industry is throwing thousands more in.”

Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East and the chair of the Gambling-related Harm All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG), has said that treatment for gamblers in self-isolation could be offered through the national gambling helpline.

Also Sir Keir Starmer’s personal private secretary, Harris works alongside a large group of other members of parliament in the APPG, such as Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, to renew gambling legislation, a sentiment shared by Gaskell.

In a recent letter released from the group, their key aim is to make the industry introduce measures that protect vulnerable gamblers during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to MM, Harris said: “I worry how many people are going to get into a situation where they are going to use that essential money, that they should be paying out, to gamble with. 

“It should be done through the national gambling helpline. It seems to me that they may or not be getting calls. I’m not seeing any adverts for the national gambling helpline. People are coming to me for help and we are having to refer them on.

“I’ve got no problem with people having a quiet little flutter on the horses, or any other kind of betting, as long as it is affordable and responsible and enjoyable. What I worry about is the people who are not enjoying it, but are obsessed with it.

“It is when what becomes the forefront of a person’s entire being is to gamble. They are the people who end up in the VIP categories with the bookies, they are the people who can least afford to be spending the money because they have a gambling disorder.”

Harris became the MP for Swansea East in 2015, and in January she stated on her website that the ‘cunning and exploitative tricks’ of gambling companies need to be halted.

Betting firms have suffered through the mass cancellation of sport, however, the Virtual Grand National was one event which bookmakers profited from, while also making donations to NHS charities.

Despite these donations, Harris was critical of the Gambling Commission, the UK’s main betting regulator, and the motivations behind the Virtual Grand National.

She said: “The Gambling Commission isn’t fit for purpose. They are toothless. Not only aren’t they big enough, they are now cutting back on staff at the very time when they should be beefing up their operations.

“I’m really interested to find out how many people who have never gambled, opened an account purely to contribute to the NHS charities through the Virtual Grand National and who were being bombarded and receiving offers of bonuses.

“It was a precursor to seeing other sports becoming virtual and we’ll see sports betting return in some shape or form and that money won’t be donated to any charity, just to the chief executive’s pocket.

“If someone’s life is dominated by this obsession and they are exploited by industries only interested in getting the money out of them, that’s where I have my problem.”

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