Michael Ryan, emergencies director at the World Health Organization (WHO), has warned that it is “very unrealistic” to expect countries with high rates of COVID-19 transmission to stage large-scale sporting events before the end of the year.

Although sports have started to resume in the UK in recent weeks, events are being held without fans. Last week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended the staging of pilot sports events with fans in attendance in England due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The UEFA European Football Championships and the Tokyo Olympic Games are the two major sporting events that have been postponed this summer due to COVID-19, with a raft of other leagues and competitions having been rescheduled or cancelled completely because of the pandemic.

During a live social media chat yesterday (Wednesday), Ryan warned that allowing tens of thousands of fans back at sports matches could be “disastrous” while transmission remains high.

“Large crowds of 40, 50, 60,000 people – it’s not just a risk of being in the stadium, it’s the risk of going to the stadium, the public transport, the bars and the clubs,” Ryan said.

“Imagine all the problems we have now with nightclubs and bars, and you squeeze all of that together into a four- or five-hour experience, where thousands of people go on the same public transport to a venue, get involved in the social aspects before a game, be involved in the game and then all of the social aspects after. In the context of community transmission, that could be disastrous.”

Ryan added: “We may have to expect that as things open up, we go from having no-one at the games to maybe 1,000 and 2,000. We all want our sport back. We’re just going to have to be careful for a good bit longer.

“It’s very unrealistic in countries with community transmission that we’re going to be seeing large gatherings like that this year. Right now, it’s hard to see those fully reopened venues.”