Government pauses planned return of football fans to stadiums

Premier League 'disappointed' with decision and insists they could still host fans safely despite rising cases

GAA 1:40
The fear of people spreading Covid-19 outside of the grounds while attending sports events was the reason the government delayed fans' return to sporting events in the UK

The planned return of spectators to sports venues in England from October 1 could be on hold for six months due to fears over a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a range of restrictions in the House of Commons on Tuesday lunchtime, including those related to mass gatherings.

Boris Johnson 0:31
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says plans for fans to return to sport events in England from October 1 have been called off

"We have to acknowledge that the spread of the virus is now affecting our ability to reopen business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events," he said.

"So we will not be able to do this from October 1 and I recognise the implications for our sports clubs which are the life and soul of our communities, and my right honourable friends the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them."

Johnson added the measures would remain in place for 'perhaps six months', saying: "We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments, new forms of mass-testing but unless we palpably make progress we should assume that the restrictions that I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.

Only 6% of volleyball teams have reported they will be able to book an indoor venue before September 1. 1:05
Sky Sports News reporter Geraint Hughes explains indoor team sport will not be allowed after being removed as an exemption from the 'rule of six'

"For the time being, this virus is a fact of our lives and I must tell the House and the country that our fight against it will continue."

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport was tasked with co-ordinating the return of fans and had told Sky Sports News on several occasions that October 1 was an 'aspirational' date which they would all work towards.

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It has since confirmed all pilot events scheduled for September had been cancelled and the events would be played behind closed doors.

Premiership Rugby confirmed this affected the match between Bath and Gloucester on Tuesday night, and Bristol against Leicester next week.

The latest announcement is a devastating blow to sports clubs across the country, many of whom rely heavily on match-day revenue for survival, and leaders of more than 100 sports bodies have written to the Prime Minister to request emergency funds to stave off a "lost generation of activity".

Brighton 3:27
Sky Sports News reporter Geraint Hughes says the Premier League are 'disappointed' after the government paused plans for fans to return to sport events in England from October 1

The group warned the future of the sector is "perilous" and urged the government to provide a "sports recovery fund" in order to help the industry endure the prolonged effects of the pandemic.

The letter, written by organisations including the Football Association, Premier League, Rugby Football Union and England and Wales Cricket Board, reportedly states: "We require a comprehensive support package for the sport and physical sector to aid its recovery.

"This package must combine investment, tax incentives, and regulatory reform.

"Covid-19 has undermined our commercial revenue streams with both stadiums and leisure facilities closed or greatly reduced in capacity. The impact of this will potentially lead to a lost generation of sport and activity."

Premier League left frustrated by decision

The Premier League, who wrote to the government earlier this month to say around £100m per month was being lost by clubs across the leagues while matches continued behind closed doors, released a statement saying they believed they could still host fans safely despite rising cases.

It read: "The Premier League notes the government's announcement today and while the health of the nation must remain everyone's priority, we are disappointed that the safe return of supporters to matches has been postponed.

"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 Ground Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted. This is already evident in other European leagues.

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"Football is not the same without attending fans and the football economy is unsustainable without them. 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."

Meanwhile, the EFL has estimated its clubs will lose a collective £200m without fans in stadiums for the whole of the 2020-21 season.

The announcement also comes barely 24 hours after Warwick staged a successful pilot event, with around 450 spectators on track with the British Horseracing Authority spelling out its frustration at the delay of crowds.

In advance of a planned fuller statement from racing's industry leaders, the BHA tweeted: "The delay to the public's return to sport events is deeply frustrating news after so much effort has been put into carrying out pilots within the rules agreed with govt and local health authorities."

Government to urgently meet sports bodies

During Tuesday's announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the Secretary of Sport for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden MP, was 'working flat out with the Premier League and others to identify ways in which we can keep these clubs going, we can support sport at all levels throughout the pandemic.'

Dowden chaired a remote meeting with representatives of football, rugby union, cricket, tennis, racing, motorsport, basketball and netball on Tuesday afternoon.

Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston was also on the call.

Dowden explained to the attendees why the Government made today's decision to pause the return of fans to stadia.

The meeting was described as positive although there was no definite outcome. There is no timeframe right now on whether any support for sport will be available, or on when fans will be allowed back.

The issue is under constant review and the government understands the pace and urgency that all sports are asking for.

To allow supporters back, various measures need to be taken throughout the autumn and winter. Some of those measures are not sport specific as there are wider public health issues, but the Government is keen to continue to work with sport to find ways of allowing fans back into stadia.

Following talks he took to Twitter, saying: "I've just held a meeting with major spectator sports to discuss today's decision to help contain the virus through winter We agreed to work together to help them through this difficult period.

"So far government funds have seen rugby league receive £16m in loans while Sport England, whose remit is in grassroots sport, has made access available to a £210m fund."

However, the government is understood to remain of the view that the Premier League and the EFL should support each other, but is open to the idea of identifying where there is critical need in the sports sector and offering financial support.

Major sporting events in the UK, including Premier League football, English international cricket and two Formula One races at Silverstone, have been held behind closed doors over the summer, with sport suspended completely during the lockdown period from March through to the start of June.

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