English sport returns behind closed doors after government go-ahead

Chris Cook
Photograph: Getty Images

“The British sporting recovery has begun,” declared the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, as he announced that professional sport in England can resume from Monday, paving the way for the first domestic live action in almost three months.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, Dowden said the government had settled on a set of strict conditions that must be followed for sports to be allowed to return behind closed doors. The rules form stage three of the process of bringing sport back from the coronavirus lockdown. Stage two, which allowed for close-contact training for elite athletes, was published last Monday.

“The wait is over. Live British sport will shortly be back on in safe and carefully controlled environments,” he said. “This guidance provides the safe framework for sports to resume competitions.

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“It is now up to individual sports to confirm they can meet these protocols and decide when it’s right for them to restart. This is a significant moment for British sport. By working with clinicians every step of the way, we are creating the safest possible environments for everyone involved.”

That means the Premier League can go ahead with its planned restart on 17 June – “I can now make it official: football is coming back,” said Dowden

A packed schedule of horse racing begins at Newcastle on Monday and builds quickly to Newmarket’s 2,000 Guineas classic on Saturday.

“It’s up to each individual sport to decide exactly when to resume competition; they know their sports best,” Dowden continued. “But football, tennis, horse racing, Formula One, cricket, golf, rugby, snooker and others are set to return to our screens shortly, with horse racing first out of the gate in the north-east next week.”

The guidelines, which he said had been developed at dozens of meetings with chief medical officers from a range of sporting bodies, require venues to put in place a screening process to detect coronavirus symptoms on entry, a one-way system for people and vehicles, minimal use of dressing rooms and for social distancing to be maintained where possible.

A third of the Premier League’s remaining 92 games will be broadcast free to air, which Dowden said followed his own intervention. “This is an open invitation for all fans to be part of this significant moment in our sporting history,” he said, adding that it would also encourage fans to stay at home to watch.

He included encouraging words for women’s sport, saying he would try to identify ways to recover the momentum lost along with some major events. “Visibility matters and our daughters deserve to see female athletes on the main stage.”

Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, welcomed the news but described the 17 June restart as provisional. “There is still much work to be done to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” he said. “This includes consulting with our clubs, players and managers - along with all our other stakeholders - as the health and welfare of our participants and supporters is our priority.”

Dowden’s news does not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and there was a warning that Scottish football might struggle to meet the 1 August date set for its own return. Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, said it depended on “a fair wind and the virus behaving itself, and of course the population behaving itself”.

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Frankie Dettori was among the first to welcome the government’s announcement. “It’s fantastic news,” said the veteran jockey, who believes his sport is now well placed to hog the limelight for a short time. “We’ve got two weeks’ start on football, the whole country’s starved of sport and racing in this country is of the highest quality. People will be able to enjoy our sport on the box and I have no doubt we can put on a good show for everyone.”

Monday’s resumption of racing at Newcastle was so over-subscribed that 198 entrants had to be turned away. Dettori will make his own return to action at Kempton the next day but is already looking forward to Friday at Newmarket, when he will ride Stradivarius in the Coronation Cup, taking on last year’s Derby winner, Anthony Van Dyck. It is one of 21 races due to be screened by ITV next weekend.

“It’s like, wow,” said Dettori, relishing the imminence of such quality racing. “Great horses are ready to go. If everything goes smooth, we’ll be able to catch up on the Classics and by the end of July the programme of horse racing will be back to normal.”

The lobbying methods and public pronouncements of racing’s ruling body, the British Horseracing Authority, have been criticised, but Dettori was happy to give them credit. “We put a great proposal to the government. The BHA and the horsemen have worked tirelessly. We’re going to be taking precautions on top of precautions.

“I’ve been riding out with a mask on, to get used to it. I’ve been talking to my French colleagues, they told me it’s a little bit of a hindrance, it’s stopping your air-flow, but I’m getting my body used to it and I have no problem at all.”

Asked if the news was a relief, Dettori said: “I think more for my wife and kids, they’ll be happy to see the back of me, to be honest. We are arguing about stupid things at the moment, who did not empty the dishwasher, who took the last ice cream. I’m getting the sign that it’s about time for me to leave the house and go to work.”