Spectators set to return to Welsh venues

The Welsh Government has today (Friday) confirmed that crowds will be able to return to outdoor events from January 21, seemingly ending fears that Wales’ opening Six Nations rugby union match could be held behind closed doors, or at a stadium in England.

The Government last month ruled that all sporting events in the country would be moved behind closed doors from December 26 in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

First Minister Mark Drakeford today outlined that if conditions allow, the alert level two restrictions will be removed in a phased approach. From tomorrow, the number of people who can be present at outdoor events will rise from 50 to 500.

From January 21, Wales is set to move to alert level zero for all outdoor activities. This means there will be no limits on the number of people who can take part in outdoor activities and crowds will be able to return to outdoor sporting events. The COVID Pass will be required for entry to larger outdoor events.

If the downward trend continues, Wales will move to alert level zero for all indoor activities from January 28. Drakeford said the latest public health data suggests cases of coronavirus have started to fall back from their very high levels. More than two-thirds of people aged 12 and over have received a booster or third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, he stressed the full move to alert level zero will be dependent on the public health situation continuing to improve. Drakeford added: “The actions we have taken together have helped us to weather the Omicron storm. The latest data suggests some positive signs that the peak may have passed.

“We can now look more confidently to the future and plan to start gradually removing the alert level two restrictions, starting with the outdoors measures.

“But the pandemic is not over. We will closely monitor the public health situation – this is a fast-moving and volatile variant, which could change suddenly. I urge everyone to continue to follow the rules and have your vaccines to keep Wales safe.”

The biggest sporting event under threat from the current situation was the Six Nations. Wales is due to play its first home game of the 2022 campaign against Scotland at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium (pictured) on February 12. Multiple reports had suggested the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) was considering taking its games across the border to a stadium in England, but this is no longer set to be required.

The news has been welcomed by the WRU. Given the restrictions in place over the Christmas period in Wales, the WRU said fan confidence in buying tickets “understandably diminished” given the uncertainty which means there are tickets still available for all three of Wales’ home matches.

Welsh Rugby Union chief executive, Steve Phillips, said: “Having watched the Six Nations 2021 tournament without crowds, the recent update from Welsh Government is hugely encouraging.

“We all want to see capacity crowds at all three games but, because of the pandemic, we are now in a race against time to achieve what would usually come naturally; this is especially the case for the match against Scotland given its proximity.

“We are in a unique position whereby three weeks out from the Scotland game  there are tickets still available from both member clubs and the WRU directly and this is a great opportunity for supporters, who may not normally get the opportunity to see a Six Nations match, to snap them up.

“We are also really pleased to see a return to ‘normality’ in the community game, starting with the ability to welcome up to 500 at matches this weekend. Our clubs have shown incredible resilience throughout and I know they will welcome this news.”

At a lower level, English National League North football club Chester is also set to welcome fans back to its games, amid the bizarre situation of having to play matches behind closed doors due to its Deva Stadium being located on the Welsh side of the border.

Scottish financial aid

The Welsh Government’s announcement comes just days after the Scottish Government said outdoor sports venues in the country will be free to welcome back full-capacity crowds from Monday, ending restrictions that had been in place since Boxing Day.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that stadiums will be able to operate without any restrictions in a boost to football’s Scottish Premiership, which returns next week following its winter break.

Outdoor sporting events in Scotland have been limited to 500 people since December 26 as part of plans to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.

Professional sports affected by the recent COVID-19 crowd limits were yesterday allocated £2.55m (€3.05m/$3.5m) in financial support from the Scottish Government. The funding comes from the £5m announced for professional sport on January 5, as part of £375m in wider business support.

It will support up to 75% of losses after the Omicron outbreak saw a limit of 500 introduced on outdoor crowds. The funding will also support clubs impacted by the limit of 200 on indoor sports. Football is set to be the main beneficiary, receiving £1.79m of the funding.

Sports Minister Maree Todd said: “These sports clubs are at the heart of their communities, but many of them have suffered real hardships as the necessary COVID-19 lockdown restrictions meant attendances were heavily restricted.

“This funding will help to ensure clubs are able to bridge the gap in revenue, as spectators return safely to sports events in larger numbers when these restrictions are eased next week. We will continue to work in partnership to support all our sports clubs to help them through this difficult time and to ensure this funding can be accessed by all clubs as efficiently as possible.”

Image: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency