UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has today (Friday) suspended the staging of pilot sports events with fans in attendance in England due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, as Premier League chief executive Richard Masters outlined how the organisation is seeking to return football supporters to matches.

Fans were in attendance at the start of the World Snooker Championship today at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, while spectators were this weekend due to watch the first two days of county cricket matches at the Kia Oval and Edgbaston. Around 4,000 racegoers were also expected to attend the Goodwood festival on Saturday.

The new restrictions on fans will now be in place until August 15 at the earliest. Johnson’s announcement came after Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Thursday evening announced new restrictions on household contact in the North West of England – specifically Greater Manchester, and parts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

Spectator tracking trial

Surrey County Cricket Club was due to set another first in ongoing efforts to return fans to UK sports venues amid COVID-19 when safety monitoring technology was deployed for the first time this weekend at the Kia Oval (pictured).

Surrey’s hosting of Middlesex in its opening match of the Bob Willis Trophy, commencing tomorrow (Saturday), was due to see British technology company, Restrata, deploy its COVID SAFE platform in a trial to monitor and manage social distancing, capacity and Track & Trace during the match, which was due to be attended by 2,500 spectators.

On Sunday, the Kia Oval played host as fans attended a UK sporting event for the first time since March during a friendly match between Surrey and Middlesex. The match served as one of a number of events selected by the UK government earlier this month to pilot the safe return of spectators.

Restrata recently provided its technology to enable the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to deliver the first biosecure Test series between England and West Indies, which was held behind closed doors at Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl.

Originally developed to ensure the safety of people across critical infrastructure from security and safety threats such as terrorism or industrial accidents, Restrata’s Bluetooth technology was due to be deployed at the Kia Oval to provide a real time monitoring and management capability to control crowd capacity in certain zones of the ground.

In the trial, spectators were to be given the company’s Bluetooth tracking ‘fobs’ so their movement could be monitored in a centralised control room at the stadium. The trial aimed to demonstrate how technology can be deployed to address some of the key challenges of hosting live events attended by large numbers of spectators, in particular contact tracing following any suspected outbreak of COVID-19.

Premier League hopes

Meanwhile, Masters has said “clinical passports” are being assessed by the Premier League as a means of returning football fans to matches. Writing in The Times today, Masters said the Premier League was “willing to see how we can support the development of ‘clinical passports’ – an app-based system that looks at all symptoms and other COVID-19 contributing factors”.

The 2019-20 Premier League season concluded behind closed doors at the weekend. Earlier this week, Sports Minister, Nigel Huddleston, appeared to extinguish hope that the Premier League’s new campaign could start with supporters in attendance. Huddleston said officials are still working towards the target of reopening English sports venues to fans from October.

Masters said the Premier League has a club working group liaising with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and medical experts assessing “practical solutions” for the return of supporters, while a “wide-ranging fan consultation” is also taking place.

Masters added: “We are prepared to help lead football through trials of what is possible, investing in technology and best-practice steps to reduce risk and make the return of fans to grounds viable. Test and trace will provide crucial support for getting fans back into the stands. We will urge supporters to be responsible and engage with this programme, helping to make football environments as safe as possible.

“We are considering all areas of a match day, from ticketing solutions, stadium seating allocation configuration and timed entries, to temperature checks and an in-seat food and drink service for fans.

“We will work with local authorities and clubs to seek solutions to local transport challenges such as introducing additional car parking and secure bicycle spaces and implementing park-and-walk schemes.”

Scottish reopening

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that fans could return to sports events from September 14. The announcement yesterday came with the new Premiership football season set to commence this weekend, behind closed doors.

Although Sturgeon said the dates are indicative and subject to review, she outlined plans that limited crowds with social distancing would be initially allowed, preceded by test events. She added: “We hope that sports stadia will be able to reopen from that day (September 14) for limited numbers of spectators, with physical distancing in place.

“Some professional sports events may be arranged for spectators before then with Scottish government agreement to test the safety of any new arrangements.”

Image: Surrey CCC