The UK government has announced that pilot sporting events held in England this month will be restricted to 1,000 spectators amid a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.
The change comes into effect today (Thursday) and applies to all remaining pilot events planned for September. A number of successful pilots have already been held across football, rugby union, cricket and snooker.
A decision on whether fans can return to stadiums on a wider basis from October 1 is also set to be made by the government. October has previously been outlined as a potential return date for a limited number of fans to return across the board but the rise in COVID-19 cases could make this unfeasible.
The ongoing horse-racing meet at Doncaster was one of the pilot events originally announced by the government last month. More than 2,500 spectators bought tickets for yesterday’s action but it was later announced that no fans would be attending the remainder of the meet, which concludes on Saturday.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “In light of increasing transmission rates, the government is reviewing the proposed sports and business events pilots ahead of October 1 and we will unfortunately need to scale some back.
“We know fans and audiences are eager to return, and jobs depend on this too, so work continues around the clock on the moonshot project with the ambition of having audiences back much closer to normal by Christmas, if safe to do so.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that while the government is reviewing its intention to return fans to stadiums from October 1, it does not mean that it is going to “scrap the programme entirely”.
A number of pilot events are scheduled for the rest of September. Football events include Saturday’s Women’s Super League match between West Ham and Arsenal and Non-League Finals Day at Wembley on September 27.
The League Two clash between Cambridge United and Carlisle United on Saturday had also been set to welcome 2,000 fans but the match will now go ahead behind closed doors.
Cambridge said the decision has been taken as it was felt the club would have been left with too many invalid tickets in circulation for a fixture where safety “has to be the number one priority”. Cambridge became the first English club to welcome fans back for a competitive fixture on Tuesday night when hosting Fulham U21s in the EFL Trophy.
Other pilot events scheduled for this month include the Premiership rugby union clash between Gloucester and Harlequins on September 14 and horse racing meets at Warwick on September 21 and Newmarket from September 24-26. Four T20 cricket matches are also included: Yorkshire vs Durham on September 16, Lancashire vs Durham and Hampshire vs Surrey on September 18, and the women’s fixture between Western Storm and Sunrisers on September 19.
A basketball match at Newcastle’s Eagles Community Arena on September 18 and a speedway meeting at Ipswich’s Foxhall Stadium on September 26 will also welcome fans, but all events will now be restricted to 1,000 capacities.
Before the government’s announcement, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said that it is “absolutely critical” for fans to return to grounds as soon as possible, claiming that an absence of supporters could cost clubs as much as £700m (€771m/$912m) over the course of the 2020-21 season.
In an interview with BBC Sport, Masters revealed that disruption at the end of the 2019-20 season cost clubs more than £250m. The new season begins on Saturday with all matches being played behind closed doors.
“We have to get back to fans inside stadia as quickly as possible – that’s the big thing that’s missing, economic or otherwise – we need fans back inside stadiums for all sorts of reasons and it’s the number one priority,” Masters said.
Discussing the rising number of COVID-19 cases and increased restrictions on gatherings of more than six people, Masters added: “It doesn’t lower our ambitions – it just means that we’ll have to adapt – it’s one thing we’ve shown over recent months, we’re able to adapt to the situation.
“We wait to see what impact it has on the government’s testing programme, and permissions it’s going to give, and also on that crucial October 1 date. We wait to see what the government decides and we’ll remain in dialogue with them throughout.
“We always knew September was going to be a difficult month at the start of the return to normality the government was talking about, and so we should anticipate bumps in the road.”