Pilot events in UK to determine fans’ return


England back with fans Image: Goodwood

If a series of test events prove to be a smooth affair in the coming weeks, then spectators could be greeted back into sporting events in England on October 1. Pilots will take place from August 1 but any stadium reopenings would be subject to coronavirus guidelines.

Gatherings of more than 30 people have been banned in England since lockdown measures were introduced in March to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic which has also left UK totally bruised and battered.

Speaking to mediapersons on July 17, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “We will pilot larger gatherings in venues such as sports stadia with a view to a wider reopening in the autumn. From October we intend to bring back audiences in stadia and allow conferences and other business events to recommence.”

In the pilot events planned, the Government hinted that it would allow limited number of spectators to develop a framework and pave the way for spectators returning in huge numbers across the country.

The test events will include the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from July 31 to August 16, the Glorious Goodwood Racing Festival from July 28 to August 1, and two county cricket friendlies, one of which is likely to be Surrey vs. Middlesex at the Oval from July 26-27.

Johnson stressed that the test events would need to be delivered in a COVID-secure way and said they had been “carefully selected to represent a range of sports and indoor and outdoor spectator environments.”

The pilot events will have to demonstrate what COVID-mitigation steps have been initiated and a behavior code in place for fans. Alternative mode of transport will also have to be provided so that fans do not have to take public transport to reach match venues and additional hygiene measures should be initiated.

Audience capacities are expected to be restricted at the pilot events and seating regulated in keeping with social distancing rules. This is also likely to be the case for the full return of spectators in October, should the test events prove to be a success.

The UK Government has also revealed that if the fatal respiratory disease comes under control, it could do away with social distancing rules totally by November.

The announcement will be welcomed by rights-holders whose financial health depends more on ticketing revenues. The English Premier League has taken place behind closed doors to shore up the league’s massive media revenues, but clubs in the lower-tier English Football Championship (EFL) rely more heavily on match day income.

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport, Heritage and Tourism, Nigel Huddleston, put in, “For months, millions of us have felt the void of being unable to go to the match to support our team or attend a top-class sporting event. So, I am pleased that we are now able to move forward with a plan to help venues safely reopen their doors to fans.”

“I recognize that not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue, and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia. Although it will remain some time before venues are full to capacity, this is a major step in the right direction for the resumption of live spectator sport across the country,” Huddleston added.

International cricket, golf, horse racing and snooker are among the other sports to have resumed after the COVID-19 lockdown.

The Racecourse Association said the Goodwood event could cater for up to 5,000 people, plus participants.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also said pilot run of other sports events are also likely to be held.

To facilitate return of fans to stadia, the operating guidelines spelt out by the Government state:

  • Fans must agree to a new code of behavior that includes not attending if they potentially have symptoms of coronavirus or have been exposed to a person who has tested positive;
  • Social distancing must be observed in seating arrangements;
  • Crowd management plans should be in place, including the controlled ingress and egress of fans and one-way systems;
  • Additional hygiene facilities should be installed inside venues, particularly at entrances and exits;
  • Screening procedures should be considered at stadium entrances.
  • Prior to any ticket purchase, competition delivery partners should provide spectators with information on the steps being implemented to minimize the risk of COVID-19, including any modifications being made to the venue;
  • Carefully controlled bookings should be in place, so that social distancing is observed in seating arrangements, alongside a minimizing of the numbers of tickets sold to a predefined safe capacity, in accordance with regulator guidance; and
  • Signage and floor markings should be developed both inside and outside competition venues to enforce social distancing, seating plans, one-way systems and queuing requirements.

The Premier League is thrilled to bits by the proposals and wants the maximum number of fans allowed back in stadia fold as soon as it is safe to do so.

The league is also willing to offer pre-season games as possible trial events before the start of next season.

The Football Association (FA) said it welcomes the Government’s “positive update” that allows them to “step up” efforts to get fans back into stadiums.

“Supporters are the lifeblood of our national game, and that has been underlined by how much their absence has been felt over the last month,” said the FA.

“We will continue to work closely with relevant authorities on how we can bring them back in a safe and secure manner, including any help we can provide to the proposed pilot events,” the FA statement added.

The English Football League (EFL) said the Prime Minister’s announcement started to “provide some clarity” as football authorities work to bring fans back.

“We will continue to work with our colleagues at DCMS, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and the wider football family in order to deliver on the timeframe and to assist clubs with the inevitable operational and financial challenges this will bring,” the EFL said in a statement.

Premiership Rugby says it would be ready to welcome fans back into grounds before the end of the season if Government greenlights the same. The season is due to resume on August 14.

In Scotland, no date has yet been set for fans returning to stadiums. Now in phase three of the Scottish Government’s route out of lockdown, the Premiership – football’s top flight – will begin on August 1 behind closed doors.

The second-tier Scottish Championship and Leagues One and Two kick off a reduced, 27-game season on October 17, the same weekend as the first Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers of the 2020-21 campaign.

The Scottish Government has held talks with Scottish Rugby about using Murrayfield as a test venue, where fans could return but maintain safe distance from each other.

The deadly coronavirus has claimed more than 45,000 lives in UK, while there have been more than 292,000 confirmed cases.

England-West Indies Test matches

Media reports stated that the England and Wales Cricket Board had installed a network of Bluetooth sensors at the two venues for the three Test matches between the England cricket team and the West Indies this summer.

The technology is being used to maintain social distancing on site and prevent too many people from descending in one area. It also enables the England and Wales Cricket Board to track and trace any outbreak of the virus at the matches. The developers of the technology suggested it could be scaled up to isolate outbreaks in much larger gatherings of people.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said it was “pleased that this announcement allows cricket to be among the first pilot events” and that it would continue to work with the Government on the safety measures required for supporters to return safely.

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