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Plans to allow the phased return of spectators into sporting venues in England from October 1 will be put on hold because of the recent rise in coronavirus cases, Michael Gove has announced.
A number of pilot test events, in which capacities have been capped at 1,000 irrespective of the size of grounds, have taken place and it was hoped stadiums would be allowed to welcome more fans from the start of next month.
However, the UK’s chief medical officers recommended on Monday that the Covid-19 alert level should be moved from three to four, which means the transmission of the virus is “high or rising exponentially”.
Cabinet Office Minister Gove told BBC Breakfast: “It was the case that we were looking at a staged programme of more people returning.
“It wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans. We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme.
“But what we do want to do is to make sure is that as and when circumstances allow get more people back.
“It is the case that we need to be cautious at the moment. A mass reopening would not be appropriate at the moment. We do need to proceed with caution.”
Kevin Miles, the chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, urged the government to listen to fans, saying they were often “crucial” to the survival of clubs.
“The FSA has written to the government to stress how important it is that we start to allow fans back into games,” he said.
“Feedback from our members at test events has confirmed high levels of compliance with all the health and safety measures put in place, and that they felt safer at games than they have done in many other social situations.
“Having fans at games is of course not only important to the lives of supporters, it is also crucial to the survival of so many clubs who play a crucial role within their communities. A combination of revenue at the ground and government support is urgently needed to keep clubs going. The government has to listen to fans and football clubs on this one.”
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.
There has been scrutiny about whether, when coronavirus cases were surging in March, the authorities had been quick to act, and the wisdom of allowing the Cheltenham Festival plus other other high-profile events to go ahead with spectators has been questioned.
Gove added: “The virus is less likely to spread outdoors than indoors but it is in the nature of major sporting events that there is a lot of mingling.
“People look back now at the beg of pandemic and look at some of the major sporting events then and ask the question why were they allowed to go ahead?
“One of the things we must do now, whatever the wisdom of the decisions made then, is to look at sports events now with caution.
“We also recognise that sport’s a vital part of the life of the nation and we’re looking at everything we can do to support our athletes and our great clubs at what is a challenging time.
“We have been piloting some open-air venues and we do want people to be watching sport.”
Newcastle head coach Steve Bruce admitted the delay was “disappointing” both on and off the pitch, bemoaning the fact football was “totally and utterly different” without fans.
He said: “It’s really, really disappointing because we would all love to see the supporters back and if we ever thought that it’s not a game for the supporters any more, then we just have to witness what we have witnessed over the last three or four months.
“It’s totally and utterly different without them. It’s not the spectacle that I believe it is. When you get a full St James’ Park and you get a cracking game, it’s what it is.
“At the moment, it seems like a false dawn. I suppose it’s better than nothing, but I think we’ve suffered more than most.
“I look again at all the results and when you see the number of away victories now, there’s no difference between playing away or at home or playing at the training ground, if you like.
“There’s no advantage, and certainly we have suffered, where our home record in particular stacked up before the lockdown and unfortunately – whether that’s had an impact, I’m not too sure – but I know for a fact that it’s far easier coming to an empty St James’ than a full one to play against us.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to outline a number of new measures aimed at tackling the surge in coronavirus cases later on Tuesday.
Julian Knight, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, expressed his concern at the announcement from Gove.
“If we don’t find a route map with smart solutions to allow sports and live events to gradually reopen, we risk decimation of our sporting and cultural infrastructure,” he wrote on Twitter.
Plans to host 1,000-capacity crowds at four Super League fixtures next week look set to be scrapped following Gove’s announcement.
Super League matches have been played behind closed doors since the season resumed on August 2 but the Rugby Football League last week unveiled plans for socially distant crowds at Wigan, Leeds, Huddersfield and Castleford on September 30.
Newmarket’s planned crowd trial later this week has also been thrown into doubt by the announcement.
A successful trial took place at Warwick on Monday and Newmarket was due to stage its own test event with 1,000 spectators on each of its three-day Cambridgeshire meeting beginning on Thursday.