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Keeping bars, casinos and bingo halls trading legally through the coronavirus outbreak

News / 05-03-2020 / London

Licensed premises, including bars, pubs, clubs, casinos and bingo halls should take legal advice from specialist licensing lawyers to ensure they can continue trading through the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Many events venues will be worried about potentially losing staff to self-isolation as coronavirus (COVID-19) becomes more widespread or of customers becoming infected, but licensed premises face special problems because the presence of certain staff may be a condition of a licence, or minimum staffing numbers may be legally required.  

Alcohol and gambling venues are potentially most affected since licensing law in both cases places requirements on both the property and staff.  Premises with licenses for late-night refreshments or live music are less affected since the law does not require certain nominated responsible people to be present for late-night refreshments or live music.  If a musician for a music venue has to self-isolate then in many cases another can be found without breaching licence conditions. 

Alcohol licenses and the need for advice from specialist licensing solicitors 

Where a premises sells alcohol, the premises itself needs a licence and there can be no sale of alcohol without an appointed ‘designate premises supervisor’.  This person must be a ‘personal licence holder’.  The law sets this out in section 19 of the  Licensing Act 2003.  The designated premises supervisor’s role must exist and it is the role of a personal licence holder (whether designated or not) to ensure that alcohol is being sold to the public in a responsible fashion.  A premises can have multiple personal licence holders associated with it, but it can only have one designated premises supervisor.   

In some cases, it can be a condition of a premises licence for a personal license holder to be present at all times when alcohol is sold.  If this condition exists and such a person needs to self-isolate because of the risk of the coronavirus (COVID-19) then this could cause particular legal problems if the premises owner wishes to continue to trade.  Doing so is potentially an offence under section 136 of the  Licensing Act 2003 and could trigger the licence to be reviewed under section 51.  Self-isolation of this key person could therefore cause a business to cease trading.  A defence can arise under section 139 of the 2003 Act if all reasonable steps were taken and due diligence was exercised to avoid any offence, but the law was written back in 2003 without consideration for the effects of viruses or self-isolation in mind. Careful application of the law by specialist lawyers such as Ince Licensing Solicitors will be needed. 

Even if an alcohol licence does not contain a condition requiring a personal licence holder to be onsite during all trading hours, problems can arise generally if a personal licence holder needs to self-isolate for any period of time.  A personal licence holder can, to an extent, delegate their duties to others in many cases (depending on licence conditions) but cannot simply disappear or turn a blind eye entirely to the way that alcohol is being sold. A personal licence holder is legally required to make or authorise each sale of alcohol – even if they do so via delegating this responsibility to others. This means that even if a particular licence does not require the personal licence holder to be physically onsite at all times when alcohol is sold, the personal licence holders are expected to maintain reasonable methods of upholding their responsibilities.  If a personal licence holder needs to self-isolate, they may not be capable of upholding their responsibilities. Whether a person can do so whilst self-isolating will depend on the facts of each case. 

Designated premises supervisors and personal licence holders are not the only staff who may be critical to allow a premises to continue trading legally, but door staff and staff who can use the CCTV system could also be vital depending on licence conditions.  A licence might have a condition requiring a minimum number of SIA registered door staff to be present in order to mitigate any incident at the venue, or requiring someone trained in the operation of the CCTV system to be present during all trading hours in order to assist the police following any incident.  If those key staff members self-isolate due to coronavirus (COVID-19) then it may no longer be possible for a premises to sell alcohol legally.  Therefore premises licence holders need to start giving some thought to planning for such risks, in particular training other staff members, and if necessary getting additional staff a personal licence. 

In relation to door staff, a proper risk analysis should be undertaken, bearing in mind the role of door staff is to reduce the potential for crime and disorder.  In the event of a serious incident, where door staff have been lacking, it may not be a sufficient excuse to blame the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on a failure to maintain order within licenced premises.  

We hope that the extent of the coronavirus (COVID-19) impact has been over-estimated, but should real issues arise, particularly in relation to door staff, then engagement with both the police and licensing authority at that time would be advisable. 

Although the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) is new, the licensing challenges have been seen before in other contexts and specialist licencing lawyers such as Ince Solicitors have experience in finding practical and legal solutions to these problems. 

Anyone responsible for a premises that sells alcohol should seek the specialist advice of Ince Licensing Solicitors by visiting or by telephoning 0800 170 1538. 

Gambling and the need for advice from specialist gambling licensing solicitors 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) presents special problems for the gambling sector for three main reasons: 

  • To operate land-based gambling activities legally, minimum staffing levels must be maintained;
  • There is a requirement for staff to have relatively close contact with customers to monitor gambling behaviour and to maintain security levels; and,
  • By unlucky co-incidence, many gambling venues happen to attract a high proportion of nationals from highly affected countries. 

These three factors exacerbate the already heightened problems of attracting large numbers of members of the public to a single venue. 

In Macau, for example, a globally attractive gambling destination, monthly gambling revenues are reported by the Wall Street Journal (2 March 2020) to have dropped by 88% after a 15-day shutdown of casinos. This was designed to help contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the Los Angeles Times reported (10 Feb 2020) that casinos were happy to forego $100 million per day of revenue in order to try to protect future revenues.  Closing venues not only helped to maintain the reputation of the destination, but reduced the chance of staff becoming infected to help ensure that enough trained potential healthy staff would be available to resume activities. 

With a legal requirement for minimum staffing levels to be maintained, it is often not possible for a gambling venue to operate with ‘skeleton’ staff if self-isolation occurs at high levels.  Many gambling venues are now advising staff to maintain a greater distance from customers than they previously would have maintained through habit and as a result of previous security training. 

Casinos are not the only gambling venues that are being affected.  UK bingo clubs are potentially feeling vulnerable as they typically attract elderly customers who may be more vulnerable if coronavirus (COVID-19) is caught.  A Great Yarmouth bingo hall is reported by its local newspaper (Great Yarmouth Mercury, 02 March 2020) to be taking the temperatures of potential customers and refusing entry to anyone whose temperature is too high. It is not clear what steps are being taken to protect the staff who lean over the counter with a hand-held thermometer to take people’s temperature.  

Gambling law in the UK – as framed in the Gambling Act 2005 - focuses on the prevention of harm from gambling rather than the protection of health from infectious diseases (e.g. transmitted as an indirect result of congregating for gambling activities), but taking steps such as these demonstrates broad public responsibility.  

Anyone responsible for a premises where gambling takes place should seek the specialist advice of Ince Gambling Licensing Lawyers by visiting or by telephoning 0800 170 1538.  

Online gambling and the need for advice from specialist gambling licensing lawyers 

If coronavirus (COVID-19) causes people to travel less and spend more time indoors, then internet use and the use of online entertainment sources by the public can be predicted to increase.  Rates of online gambling may, therefore, naturally increase.  

Online gambling companies are advised to take specialist legal advice to ensure their compliance measures and monitoring systems are fully scalable so that unmanageable compliance risks do not arise as a result of an increase in online gambling activity. 

Anyone responsible for a gambling website or app should seek the specialist advice of Ince Gambling Licensing Lawyers by visiting or by telephoning 0800 170 1538.  

Philip Somarakis

Philip Somarakis Partner, Head of Regulatory Solutions

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