Ernie cuts back as Lottery hits new heights

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Ernie, the computer genius whose whirrings have sent frissons through generations of Premium Bond holders, has suddenly turned mean.

His masters at National Savings, who have been paying out an average of 390,000 prizes a month, announced yesterday that they will be cutting that number down to 350,000.

Although the pounds 1m jackpot and other prizes down to pounds 500 will remain and in some cases be boosted, reflecting the National Lottery's big-money appeal among the public, the chances of winning pounds 100 or pounds 50 will drop significantly.

National Savings said yesterday that its decision to cut the number of small prizes was prompted by the need to bring down the amount paid out each month. From May onwards payouts will decline from 5.2 per cent to 4.75 per cent of all Bonds in each monthly draw. A spokeswoman said: "We found that although people still wanted to be in with a chance to win big prizes each month, they were less worried about the pounds 50 or pounds 100 ones. I suppose attitudes towards big wins are similar to the National Lottery, except that in our case the top prize is still far smaller."

For those who like to calculate the odds on every bet, the chances of winning a Premium Bond prize will soon be 17,200 to 1 compared with better than 15,000 to 1 at present. The chances of winning the pounds 1m jackpot remain at 58 million to one, compared to odds of 14 million to one against scooping the National Lottery. However, that has not put off punters. Queues for tickets for this week's rollover jackpot, expected more than pounds 40m, are breaking all records.

But the lottery is no longer the frenzied conversation on every lip in the nation, since the last double rollover earlier this month, when three winners shared pounds 42.5m. Despite the lack of mania surrounded the latest double rollover, ticket sales are still expected to exceed all previous records. They are already up by 150 per cent on normal sales.

Almost every adult in Britain is expected to have a flutter this weekend, but Leslie Reid, emeritus professor of psychology at Exeter University who has studied the effects of the lottery, said the apparent decline in enthusiasm for talking about the lottery was typical.

"What the lottery depends on is that while not everyone gets a reward, there is a vicarious sense if people you know have won. This is why the lottery people are so keen to display winners. They are also anxious to tell you it's great fun, but there isn't really any great sense that people are having fun at all."

The lack of faith that people have in their chances of winning is supported by the number of unclaimed prizes. More than pounds 20m is unclaimed, and a further pounds 26.2m has already been added to the good causes fund from prizes that were not claimed with the 180-days time limit. Six players have failed to claim prizes ranging from pounds 94,000 to pounds 146,000.

One winner who bought his winning ticket in Oldham, Greater Manchester, last summer has only another two weeks to cash in his pounds 94,239 ticket.

The five other big unclaimed prizes are: pounds 146,245 - the ticket was bought in the Torquay area for the 30 September draw, last date for claim is 20 March; pounds 109,892 - ticket bought in the Liverpool area for 16 December, claim deadline is 5 June; pounds 102,262 - ticket bought in the Cardiff area for 23 September draw, ticket must be redeemed by 13 March; and pounds 104,746 - two tickets bought for the 6 January double rollover draw, deadline runs out on 27 June.