The early part of 2020 was great for retail. We had a clear plan that the entire retail business was galvanised behind, and the business was performing well ahead of its expectations, powered by both our Betstation and gaming machine propositions.

Then, just as we were preparing to upgrade our full year expectations in March, the realities of COVID-19 set in as a host of sporting events were cancelled, thus impacting revenues across the business.

On March 20th, 2020, we were told that betting shops would have to close with less than 24 hours’ notice. We therefore closed our whole estate of over 3,000 shops – no small undertaking. Thereafter, we moved swiftly into cash management mode i.e. mitigating leakage from the business, working with all our suppliers, and, with a heavy heart, furloughing over 13,000 store-based colleagues. Throughout the pandemic we have prided ourselves on treating our colleagues, customers, and suppliers in the most fair and transparent manner possible.

This has been reflected in the fact that we have continued to pay all our store-based colleagues in full at all points while shops have been closed. Our colleagues’ mental and physical wellbeing is always front of mind and this was something we took particularly seriously during the period of closure. Through a mixture of letters, blogs, calls and SMS text updates, we continued to stay connected with the team. We also launched a wellbeing app and introduced colleagues to several other support systems to help them navigate the unprecedented times.

In the background, we began working to make our whole estate ‘COVID-secure’ , which meant rolling out social distancing equipment including dividers between machines, screens at our tills, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer, as well as introducing signage in all shops informing customers of the protections we had put in place and the need for them to maintain distance.

We also had to rethink our shop operating procedures and communicate this to all colleagues in advance of reopening.

Rolling this out across our whole estate was not easy, especially when we were informed, late in the day, that reopening would be brought forward from 4th July to 15th June. We managed this date change successfully and, once again, our colleagues did us proud by rising to the challenge.

We were able to open every shop on the first day we were permitted to do so – a remarkable achievement. The fact we could reopen was testament to the hard work of all our teams. It is worth noting that some of our competitors with smaller estates were not in the same position and weren’t fully open until July.

Our colleagues’ mental and physical wellbeing is always front of mind and this was something we took particularly seriously during the period of closure.

Trading at reopening was very encouraging and remarkably resilient, particularly given the fact that we had been closed for over two months and our customers had access to digital channels throughout that period. Again, consistent with where we were at the start of the year, we found ourselves well ahead of expectations before our retail estate reopened. Summer was boosted by a number of sporting events having been deferred from earlier in the year, including the conclusion of the Premier League.

However, as schools began to reopen in September, the country started to see COVID-19 cases increasing again. Following the imposition of a tier system, we were put into another lockdown for four weeks in November. Despite our obvious disappointment given the efforts that went into ensuring our shops were safe, we, once again, swiftly closed our retail estate and put all our colleagues back on furlough and on full pay.

We reopened all shops in December with our in-shop offering dependant on the tier we were in. Again, performance was really encouraging, thus reaffirming that at its core we had a strong underlying business. However, over the course of the month, as tier 4 regulations were introduced, more and more shops were forced to close, which eventually led to the current lockdown we find ourselves in today.

In summary, despite 2020 being one of the hardest years any of the retail team have had in their careers, we all look back on it with an enormous sense of pride. Pride that we have treated all our colleagues fairly and pride that at its core we have a strong underlying business as evidenced by the bounce back each time we have reopened. If 2020 and COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that retail betting is not dead and that betting shops have an imprortant role to play on the UK’s high streets.