UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has confirmed that fans will not be able to return to sports events in England next month as initially planned, with tighter restrictions set to be imposed amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.
The government has previously targeted October 1 as a date for the wider return of sports fans across England following a number of pilot events. Attendances at the ongoing pilot events have already been capped at 1,000 due to a rise in COVID-19 cases but greater restrictions are set to be laid out later today by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The pilot programme, which includes events across a number of sports such as football, cricket and rugby league, is set to be paused and it is unclear when fans will be able to return to stadiums.
“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning – it wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans,” Gove told BBC Breakfast.
“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, we get more people back. The virus is less likely to spread outdoors than indoors but again it’s in the nature of major sporting events that there’s a lot of mingling.”
Gove also discussed the decision to stage matches at full capacity back in March, just before the UK went into lockdown. Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League match against Atlético Madrid has been linked to a spike in cases in the city and prompted an investigation by the council.
Gove said: “People look back now at the beginning of the pandemic at some of the major sporting events then and ask the question ‘Why were they allowed to go ahead?’
“What we must do is look at sporting events now with caution but we also recognise that sport is a vital part of this nation and we’re looking at everything we can do to support our athletes, our great clubs, through what will be a challenging time.”
Oliver Dowden, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, later confirmed Gove’s comments. In a series of tweets outlining the latest restrictions, Dowden said he understands the “seriousness of the impact” no fans will have on clubs, adding that he is working with sports and government colleagues on support plans.
Following the news, the Premier League released a statement expressing its disappointment that the “safe return of supporters to matches” has been postponed.
The Premier League noted that other European leagues have been able to welcome back fans safely and has insisted that it will not slow down preparations to provide bio-secure environments at stadiums.
The Premier League’s statement said: “The Premier League is certain that, through League-wide guidelines and a code of conduct developed with scientific experts and agreed by the Government’s Sports Grounds Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted.”
It added: “Last season, Premier League clubs suffered £700m in losses and at present, our national game is losing more than £100m per month. This is starting to have a devastating impact on clubs and their communities.
“We are confident that Premier League clubs, using innovative ways to get supporters safely back into grounds, will enable revenues to return to all levels of the game, as well as maintain solidarity arrangements, current tax contributions and financial support for local and national economies.”
The Premier League said it will continue to work with the government on the safe return of fans to stadiums.
The news comes after more than 100 sporting organisations, including the Premier League and the Rugby Football Union (RFU), wrote to the Prime Minister urging the government to set up a “comprehensive support package” for the sport and physical sector. The calls for help combine investment, tax incentives, and regulatory reform in order to prop up clubs, organisations and facilities to stabilise and survive.
In Scotland, fans are unlikely to return to sports venues in the near future after an announcement from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Whilst disclosing new restrictions on household interaction and the hospitality industry, Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that next month’s target to return fans is unlikely to happen.
A date of October 5 had been proposed for the start of a phased reintroduction, with that having already been delayed by three weeks. Further pilot events with fans in stadia will now be placed on hold.
Sturgeon said: “It’s important I indicate, in light of the current situation, that the route map changes with an indicative date of October 5 are unlikely now to go ahead on that time scale.”
Football’s Premiership season will continue, while the Championship, League One and League Two campaigns are due to commence on October 17 behind closed doors.