Michael Gove has apologised for wrongly suggesting that people would be able to play singles tennis or golf in pairs during England’s impending national lockdown.
Downing Street has insisted it will not change direction over the decision to close golf courses and tennis clubs when new measures are introduced from Thursday.
It comes amid criticism of the Government for not permitting children’s grassroots sports to go ahead outside of school settings, which has been branded “nonsensical” by football pundit Robbie Savage.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has admitted he is not aware of any instance where infection had spread between children playing football outdoors – but said it was for policymakers to decide what is and is not allowed.
— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) November 3, 2020
During an online question and answer session with his constituents on Monday, Mr Gove sparked confusion when he suggested it would be possible to play singles tennis.
The Cabinet Office minister also said “we are looking at” allowing people to play golf with one other person, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson so far resisting calls for golf courses to remain open.
Asked if doubles tennis can continue, Mr Gove said: “The key thing here, I think, is that you will probably be able to continue to play singles tennis at the moment.
“The guidance that we have is that if people are appropriately socially distanced, they can take exercise with one other person. That’s why I mentioned golf earlier.
“Golf clubs, club houses, they will have to be closed, but we are looking at allowing people to play on golf courses with one other appropriately distanced.”
On Tuesday morning, Mr Gove apologised for the comments on Twitter, including a link to the Government guidance.
“My apologies, I got this wrong,” he said. “Outdoor leisure facilities including tennis courts and golf courses will be closed from Thursday.”
Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed that grassroots sports outside of school would be “paused” during England’s second lockdown, “to reduce the transmission risk from households mixing”.
“As soon as we can resume this, we will,” he added during a Twitter thread explaining the new national measures.
But this was criticised by former midfielder Mr Savage, who coaches a junior team, as he said there were inconsistencies in allowing children to mix during school but not while playing grassroots sports at the weekend.
Calling the decision “nonsensical”, Mr Savage told BBC Breakfast: “I look at Oliver Dowden’s tweets last night and there’s so many inconsistencies.”
He added: “These kids, they need a mental and physical activity to stimulate themselves on a weekend, it’s ridiculous.”
Sir Patrick told the Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday afternoon that scientists give advice on “the general principles” but not individual specific activities, and cautioned that measures take into account “not just the event itself but what happens in and around it”.
Committee chairman Greg Clark said it seems “perverse” that children’s sports teams outside school settings will not be allowed to meet under new restrictions “given the importance of exercise” and low incidence of transmission outdoors.
Mr Savage, a former Premier League star, has launched a petition to allow supervised, Covid-secure youth team sports to continue during the lockdown, which had surpassed 15,000 signatures by Tuesday morning.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told the BBC: “You are able to continue doing the usual activities that you do during the school day. And, so, school sport and other extra-curricula activities can, and should continue, albeit taking into account the bubbles and social distancing guidelines at schools.
— Robbie Savage (@RobbieSavage8) November 1, 2020
“I think there are risks in encouraging children to mix with others outside of their bubble, outside of the children that they regularly come into contact with in a school setting.
“Obviously, that does increase, quite significantly, the contacts that they have and the transmission of the virus. And so, I think this probably isn’t a wise step at this point.”
He added: “At the moment we have taken a very clear decision to prioritise school and those activities that come within the school setting. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Mr Johnson was asked in the House of Commons on Monday whether golf courses would be exempted from the new restrictions.
“I must apologise to my honourable friend for not being able to offer the House a huge list of exemptions to the rules we’ve set out,” the Prime Minister said.
“Because once you unpick at one thing alas the effectiveness of the whole package is compromised.
“That’s why I want everyone to work together for the next four weeks to get the R rate under control so that we can open things up again in time for December.”