The UK’s National Lottery raised its highest-ever amount for good causes in 2020, generating £1.2bn for coronavirus relief schemes, as its operator prepares its bid in the contest to retain its licence.

Camelot, the company behind the National Lottery, said that despite early disruption to sales when shops were shut during the first lockdown, it achieved £8.3bn in sales in the year to the end of March 2021, its highest since winning the licence in 1994.

About a quarter of each pound played in the lottery goes to good causes, such as sports initiatives and community projects, with Camelot taking about 1 per cent in profits. The total that Camelot raised for charities during the year was £1.89bn.

The privately owned Canadian company began in March last year to work in partnership with the National Lottery Distribution Fund to support emergency relief during the pandemic. Camelot said this “boosted awareness” of the role the lottery played in backing charities and so increased sales.

Of the total that went to good causes, £1.2bn was allocated to Covid-19 relief efforts, including suicide helplines and funding heritage sites that had been forced to close, the operator said

The sales figures come at a crucial time for the National Lottery operator as it finalises its bid ahead of the September deadline to retain its role running the lottery after the end of the current licence in 2024. The lottery is one of the most lucrative UK government contracts on offer to the private sector.

Nigel Railton, Camelot’s chief executive, said the group would enter a “very competitive” bid. But he added that due to the tight regulation of the bidding process by the UK’s gambling regulator he was not permitted to comment on the tender.

The competition is shaping up to be one of the most fiercely contested ever. Camelot has run the lottery since its inception in 1994 and it makes up almost all of the company’s business.

Other bidders include Czech operator Sazka, Italian lottery group Sisal, media mogul Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell and the Indian gambling company Sugal & Damani.

David Zeffman, head of gambling and sport at the law firm CMS, said that Camelot had an advantage in the competition of being the incumbent: “You know what you’re getting and it’s tried and tested.”

“There is a corresponding minus though, that it is always them and that makes it easier for the competition to say you need some new ideas,” he added. “The criticism that I would have of them is that it is so land based and you would have thought that there is a much bigger online opportunity than they take advantage of.”

Camelot said the UK’s lottery is the fifth largest in the world and commands the highest digital sales of any globally. About 37m UK adults, or 70 per cent of the adult population, play lottery games at least once each year.

Camelot said during the first weeks of the UK’s lockdown in late March last year, sales fell 30 per cent but performance improved after the group brought forward £7m of digital investment, improved its relations with retailers and increased promotion of its coronavirus relief support.

“The thing that was critical to our success last year was pulling together the Covid-19 fund,” Railton said.

The group said digital lottery play, including instant online games, offset a decline in scratchcard sales after many of the outlets it sells through on high streets were hit by low footfall during lockdowns. Average spend on online play was about £6 per week.

Camelot improved sales of its traditional draw-based games by 3.3 per cent to £4.7bn. Overall sales improved 5.9 per cent compared with 2019.

This article has been amended to reflect that Camelot worked in partnership with the National Lottery Distribution Fund to support emergency relief during the pandemic.