The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has written to leading online gambling operators demanding regular updates on players' behaviour patterns during the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
Bet365, GVC Holdings, William Hill, Flutter Entertainment and The Stars Group-owned Sky Betting & Gaming, as well as industry trade body the Betting and Gaming Council, have been asked to provide internal data around online gambling habits of players under lockdown.
Minister for sport, tourism and heritage Nigel Huddleston’s letter also reminds operators of their responsibilities and encourages the industry to take extra steps to protect players “at a time of heightened risk”.
Operators are also advised to make safer gambling messaging more prominent in their advertising across television, radio, online and print media. In particular, Huddleston writes, this messaging should clearly warn of risk and signpost support services such as GambleAware.
Huddleston’s letter comes almost a month after the Betting and Gaming Council announced a ten-point plan adopted by members to protect customers during the pandemic, which included measures similar to those recommended by the MP.
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 MP explained that DCMS had taken action after the Advertising Standards Authority reported an increase in gambling-related complaints since the pandemic hit the UK. The ad watchdog has not publicly announced this, but earlier this month said it was scrutinising gambling adverting for any failures to comply with a ban on mentioning Covid-19 or looking to exploit the situation for financial gain.
DCMS has requested further details from the ASA on the scale and trends of these complaints.
Huddleston said the information provided by the industry and the ASA would allow DCMS and the Gambling Commission to make a full assessment of the impact of the current situation on gambling habits. This would allow them to identify new risks, whether operators were taking action to address these, and whether current regulations and voluntary measures were sufficient to prevent an increase in gambling related harm.
“Although there is no firm evidence at this stage, there are concerns that the current social distancing measures could lead to an increase in problem gambling online with people in lockdown and internet usage up,” DCMS explained.
It added that the Gambling Commission had received reports of an increase in customer activity around online slots, poker, casino gaming and virtual sports, following the cancellation of live sport and closure of land-based gambling premises.
“As we stay at home and spend more time online, it is vital that no stone is left unturned in protecting people from gambling related harm,” Huddleston said.
“Whilst overall gambling participation has fallen in recent weeks and the industry has made notable contributions to support the national response, we must take proactive steps now, and keep these measures under review.
“I expect patterns of play to be closely monitored so we can move quickly if there is any evidence of problem gambling increasing. I also want more to be done to promote responsible gambling during the pandemic.”
Huddleston will also arrange a virtual round table with major problem gambling treatment and support organisations in the coming weeks. This, he said, would provide an opportunity to discuss the impact of the pandemic, to assess trends in service use, how effective remote treatment provision for problem gamblers is proving, and whether current self-exclusion measures are fit for purpose.
The Minister’s intervention comes in the wake of integration with the UK-wide self-exclusion system Gamstop becoming mandatory for all operators from 31 March. The Commission has already taken action against operators that failed to integrate by that date.
Last week, from 14 April, a ban on the use of credit cards to fund gambling also came into effect.
The government is also preparing a review of the 2005 Gambling Act, to ensure it is fit for the digital age, with further details of this process to be announced in due course.