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GC survey: gambling in decline under lockdown

| By Daniel O'Boyle
More people in the UK have stopped gambling under lockdown than started or increased play, according to new data from the British Gambling Commission, though the regulator warned that evidence suggested session length for existing customers had risen.

More people in the UK have stopped gambling under lockdown than started or increased play, according to new data from the British Gambling Commission, though the regulator warned that evidence suggested session length for existing customers had risen.

A YouGov study, commissioned by the regulator, found that 1.8% of respondents – comprising 2.9% of males and 0.7% of females – said they had stopped gambling entirely in the past four weeks. A further 3.3% said they had reduced gambling spend in this period, while 4.8% cut time spent playing.

The survey, conducted over 16-17 April, gathered responses from 4,465 British adults. 

Of this number, just 0.2% said they started gambling since the UK-wide lockdown was announced, and only 1.5% of existing players claimed to have increased play in the past month.

Of those that gambled three or more times during the four-week period of lockdown, 20.3% said they had increased time spent gambling, with 13.4% increasing spending. A further 7.4% of those in this segment were new players. 

In total, 31.5% of respondents said they had spent money gambling during the four-week period. The National Lottery draw was by far the most popular form during this period, accounting for 24.8% of respondents' activity. The National Lottery’s online instant win games were the next most popular, played by 3.2% of respondents.

Bets on sports – heavily impacted by cancellations across the globe – were placed by 2.6% of respondents, while a further 0.5% bet on esports, and 2.3% placed wagers on virtual sports.

Online slots were played by 1.6% of respondents, while other online casino games including poker were played by 0.8%. Online bingo was played by 1.7% of those surveyed.

Among those who gambled three or more times in the four-week period, 65.0% bought lottery tickets, 46.1% bet on sports and 44.7% bet on virtuals. The National Lottery’s online instant win games were played by 40.4% of those who gambled three or more times. Meanwhile, 33.6% of this frequent gambler segment played online slots and 19.8% other online casino games.

Among all who gambled in the four-week period, 32.6% said they played a new game of some sort for the first time.

In total, 20.3% said they bought lottery tickets for the first time, while 4.9% of customers tried virtual sports. National Lottery scratchcards and bingo were each tried by 2.0% of respondents for the first time. For online slots, this figure was 1.7% and for other online casino games it was 0.5%.

There was evidence that exposure to advertising may be in decline, with 47% of those surveyed claiming to have not seen any gambling ads during the past four weeks, compared to 44% that had. National Lottery ads, seen by 31.5% of respondents, were the most common.

Online bingo ads were seen by 27.8%, and ads for online slots were seen by 15.1% of respondents. A further 14.5% said they had seen ads for online casino, while sports betting advertising – at a time with no sports – was only seen by 5.9% of those surveyed.

While the figures suggest little more than a muted increase in gambling activity, the Commission also noted that “while overall session length has decreased, there has been an increase in the number of sessions that are played for over an hour”.

While it said that there has been “no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling” during lockdown, the regulator did review its guidance to licensees, making licensees’ requirement to interact with customers experiencing signs of harm especially clear.

“Operators must use the data they hold to protect their customers and now, more than ever, it’s vital that online operators really know their customers by monitoring how long they are playing for and understanding how financial uncertainty is impacting them and what they can afford to gamble with,” Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur said.

“To ensure operators do that, we are strengthening our guidance and expect operators to take account of that to prevent bonus offers or inducements being offered to customers who are showing any sign of harm‘’

It asked operators to remove any reverse withdrawal features, warning that customers cancelling requests to take money out of their accounts should act as a “flag for potential gambling harms”.

Operators were also advised to review all thresholds and triggers to track vulnerability, ensuring they reflected the altered financial circumstances of players during the pandemic. Tighter thresholds should be imposed on new players, given operators have little awarenes of individuals' playing and spending patterns, the regulator added. Customer interactions should be initiated for any player that spends more than an hour gambling. 

McArthur said some of the changes had already brought into effect the Covid-19 crisis, but argued the situation makes them more pertinent. 

‘’We will continue to monitor and publish the data that we are collecting and we will take further measures if required,” McArthur said. “We are monitoring online operators closely and if we see irresponsible behaviour we will step in immediately, suspending licences if we need to.”

Minister for Sports, Tourism  and Heritage Nigel Huddleston welcomed the guidelines but said the government may step in to take further action if it believed it to be required.

“”It is vital that people are protected from the threat of gambling related harm and I welcome these latest steps from the Gambling Commission,” Huddleston said. “We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will not hesitate to take further action if required.”

Kenny Alexander, chief executive of Ladbrokes Coral operator GVC, said that despite the lack of increase in problem gambling it would continue to work on its tools to fight the issue.

“We welcome the finding from the UK Gambling Commission that there is no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling during the COVID-19 lockdown,” Alexander said. “Nevertheless, we remain committed to taking all necessary actions to keep our customers safe whilst they enjoy our products.

“Providing a robust safety net for those who may experience harm is particularly important during this unprecedented time of uncertainty and social restrictions. That is why we continue to enhance our tools to track problematic play so that we can proactively interact with any player if we see changes that suggest they are having problems.”

GVC said it has already taken action including the addition of two new Markers of Harm indicators to its safer gambling algorithm intended to review behaviour before and after isolation. In addition, the operator stepped up its communication with customers.

Last month, Huddleston wrote to leading online gambling operators demanding regular updates on players' behaviour patterns during the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

In March, the Betting and Gaming Council announced a ten-point plan adopted by members to protect customers during the pandemic. BGC members also stopped all direct television and radio advertisement, replacing ads with responsible gambling messages.

This saw operators commit to making safer gambling messaging more prominent in advertising, and signposting links to services such as GamCare and its National Gambling Helpline. Operators will also be monitoring customer behaviour in order to react quickly to increases in time and spending.

These measures have been criticised by the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group, however, which dismissed them as being insufficient to actually provide a sensible level of player protection, or as rehashing existing commitments. The group has called for mandatory £50 daily deposit limits during the crisis.

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