The last major football match played in England before all sport was suspended because of the coronavirus crisis was the European Champions League showpiece between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid. It was a thrilling contest that transfixed 54,000 people under the floodlights of Anfield.
But now that match, along with many other mass events that the government allowed to go ahead as the pandemic spread in March, is coming under renewed scrutiny as evidence grows of the lethal danger to which people were exposed. They include rugby matches, horse races, musical concerts and dog shows attended, in total, by hundreds of thousands of Britons.
One of those at Anfield was Simon Renoldi, 48, an Essex businessman and pub-restaurant owner. A lifelong Liverpool supporter, he travelled up on the train from Euston station in London with his young son.
“We were in first class on the train, and we passed through a few carriages of Madrid fans, so I don’t know if that’s when I caught the virus, or at the game,” he said. Anfield was packed, as were the old Victorian pubs around it, and the stadium’s bars, megastore, snack bars, and the corporate areas where Renoldi had his seats.
At the time, the government’s official policy was to “contain” the coronavirus, although an initial testing and tracing effort had been overwhelmed and was abandoned the following day. Around 3,000 Atletico supporters were allowed to come from Madrid, a Covid-19 hotspot already, where crowds at football matches had just been banned and schools closed.
Nobody who has had Covid-19, or the families of almost 50,000 British people who have since died from the virus, can be certain when they caught it. But Renoldi is one of almost 200 people who have contacted the Guardian in recent weeks to say they believe they became infected during the course of a major event in those first two weeks of March.
As the death toll in Britain has risen to become the highest in Europe, the initial policy of Boris Johnson’s government – to dismiss other countries’ rapid responses and allow the virus to spread – has been subjected to unforgiving scrutiny. Permitting the “mass gatherings” to continue has become an emblem of the government’s inaction, captured most vividly in pictures of teeming crowds at the Cheltenham horse racing festival from 10-13 March.
The full impact the events had will never be known, but a broader picture is beginning to emerge. Having examined his evidence, Prof Tim Spector, of the Covid-19 Symptom Study, told the BBC last week that “sporting events should have been shut down at least a week earlier, because they’ll have caused increased suffering and death that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred”.
‘I will never forget that day’
Renoldi recalled a landmark football occasion at Anfield that day. “Because the game was on and the government advice was that it was safe to be held, you couldn’t have kept me away,” he said. “A few days after the match I had it: dry cough, hot sweats, short breath, gritty lungs.”
When he felt the symptoms, he self-isolated, but then Simon’s father, Gino, 75, who had diabetes and other health issues but was still working at the pub and living above it, fell ill. On 3 April, he collapsed.
“They managed to get his heart going again, and took him to Basildon hospital, but within three hours we were told his lungs were in a very bad way and he wasn’t going to survive. They let three of us in, and we had the last 20 minutes with him, then they turned off the machine. I will never, ever forget that day.”
Only eight people were allowed at the funeral. “Mum had to grieve on her own after that,” Renoldi said. “The Covid-19 test came back negative but they’re not always accurate are they? A respiratory consultant at the hospital told us that he was sure it was covid.”
Reflecting on the match, he said: “Now so many people have died from covid, it’s obvious a lot of things should have been stopped sooner and the game should not have been held.”
The justification still maintained by ministers for waving ahead that match, the Cheltenham festival, music concerts and other “mass gatherings” – before they were finally stopped on 16 March – is that that they carried a “low risk” of people transmitting the virus.
That was underpinned by advice from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) that critics now argue looks confusing and alarmingly superficial.
Sage scientists advise that although such events draw huge crowds, they involve little close human contact, partly because spectators are outdoors. On 11 February, the Sage sub-group SPI-M noted that “in most larger events, such as sports matches, attendees will come into close contact with at most a handful of people, so the risk to attendees is low.”.
But that claim seems to be based on assumptions, not on a researched examination of people’s movements at such events: the nationwide and international travelling, the eating, drinking, shopping, and all-day cramming together involved in a modern sporting or cultural event.
The Guardian asked the Government Office for Science, which represents Sage, if the advice was based on detailed scientific research. It did not respond.
The other element of the Sage advice is about scale: scientists in the group argue that while mass events look as if they would spread a virus, and some people undoubtedly do become infected, only a small proportion of the population attends, so stopping the events is not significant for a nationwide response to a pandemic.
Minutes of Sage meetings published for the first time last week reveal that as late as 3 March, the scientists advised: “There is currently no evidence that cancelling large events would be effective.”
However, the Johnson government’s decision to allow mass gatherings to take place was not solely because they were considered “low risk”. At that time, the government was not stopping any activities, including those regarded as higher risk: allowing schools, workplaces, pubs, cinemas and restaurants to remain open.
Although the government still insists that attaining “herd immunity” was not part of its plan, its chief scientific adviser and the chair of Sage, Sir Patrick Vallance, explained on 13 March that allowing 60% of the population to become infected, then recover and attain herd immunity, was one of “the key things we need to do”.
Vallance and other senior figures said multiple times they did not want to delay or mitigate the virus’s spread too early, because the aim was to flatten the peak and maintain a manageable flow of critical cases into the NHS.
Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College and a leading Sage scientist before he stepped down on 5 May for breaching the lockdown, told the Guardian he had informed the government well before March that under the “mitigation” policy they were planning, about 250,000 people would die. Asked to confirm if that was true, both Downing Street and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to comment.
Other mass gatherings
The ordeals of the many people who believe they were infected at major events – including the England v Wales rugby international at Twickenham on 7 March, which Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, attended; Stereophonics concerts in Cardiff, the Crufts dog show, the All England badminton tournament in Birmingham, and others – present a damning case that serious dangers to public health were created by allowing the events to go ahead.
First, they are a reminder of how dangerous the virus is: many people became seriously ill, some critically, many have still not recovered.
Joel Rookwood, a university lecturer who fell ill days after the Liverpool match, said he still has “prolonged fatigue”, shortness of breath, and feels “very old and weak.”.
All the events drew people from across the country and internationally, risking infection to people in the host city and in the places visitors came from and returned to.
Martin Middleton, 57, a chief executive in Dublin, went to Twickenham with eight friends from the UK and Spain; five developed symptoms, he ended up in hospital with viral pneumonia, and he knows of at least 14 more people he believes were infected by his group.
Numerous people said they believed they were infected at the Cheltenham festival, which attracted 260,000 racegoers to the Gloucestershire town. Jax Hill-Wilson, 63, said she was sure she became infected there while working in corporate hospitality, and she believes she subsequently infected other people close to her. Several people said they found themselves on packed trains to Cheltenham, or on the platform at Birmingham New Street when it was crammed with racegoers, and later came down with Covid-19.
Geoff Beadnell, a retired businessman, marked his 71st birthday on 11 April on a Covid-19 high-dependency ward at Cheltenham general hospital, having been to the Gold Cup, the festival’s finale, on 13 March.
“The timing made me convinced I was infected when we went racing,” he said. “I remember queueing for the bar, it was packed, and a guy right in front of me was clearly unwell and sweating; I tried to back away from him but you couldn’t.”
A week later he began to have “really hot sweats”, and developed a sore throat, then breathing problems. After calling 111 on three consecutive days, then his GP, he was taken to hospital by ambulance and within 10 minutes was wired up to machines in an isolation ward.
“It was horrendous,” Beadnell said. “I didn’t eat for five days; I had two blood transfusions, they put me on an oxygen machine – a Cpap – the mask is horrible, it gave me nasal and throat infections and I have scars on my eyes.”
He said of the festival being on: “The excuse was that it was outdoors and you didn’t have to be close to people, but we were packed like sardines; you couldn’t put a bet on, get a drink or go to the toilet and not be crammed together. Now I’m just grateful to be alive.”
Debbie Clifford, 56, a credit controller who lives near Cheltenham, did not go to the races, but said she believed she was infected in town on one of the days it was packed. She fell ill on 21 March, had extreme fatigue, then could not breathe. On 2 April she was admitted to intensive care.
“There were 15 or 20 people there on ventilators; I was the only one conscious,” Clifford said. “I was on my side so could only see one person; I think he died. They moved me to a side ward for covid patients and on 5 April I thought I wasn’t going to survive. The next day, four people on the ward died. But I had a miraculous turnaround. On 7 April they let me come home. I was absolutely terrified because I felt 100 years old, frail, and needed a Zimmer frame. I haven’t recovered yet.”
When Clifford discussed the races going ahead, and recalls Vallance explaining herd immunity, she became emotional.
“I’m a rational person, a financial auditor, I’m all about facts. I’m from a Conservative-supporting family,” she said. “And I do believe the government was willing to sacrifice people, the old and the sick, which would save them money, and get their herd immunity.”
Prof John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a leading Sage member, explained to the Guardian his basis for advising that “mass gatherings” had little impact on the spread of a virus.
“Very few people actually go to these events” as a proportion of the population. The events are outside, and “you don’t actually come into contact with that many people. So the total number of contacts made in these situations compared with every day in a pub for instance, is really negligible.”
However, there is evidence suggesting mass gatherings did have a significant impact on the spread of the disease.
Cheltenham became a coronavirus hotspot in the south-west after the festival, and Liverpool cases rose significantly following the Atletico match. The official government data on Covid-19 cases states that on 12 March, there were only nine cases in Liverpool; by 11 April, there were 937.
Postcode data leaked to the Local Democracy Reporting Service showed that on 3 April, the area of GL52, next to Cheltenham racecourse, had the highest number of hospitalised Covid-19 sufferers in Gloucestershire. And The Covid-19 Symptom Study has found that by 29 March Liverpool and Cheltenham were among the UK’s most infected areas, with an estimated 5%-6% of people aged 20 to 69 reporting symptoms.
The data consultancy Edge Health last month analysed the number of people dying at the hospitals closest to Anfield, Cheltenham racecourse and Old Trafford, where 76,000 people watched Manchester United play Manchester City on 8 March. They found that 35 days later, each had had approximately 40 more Covid-19-related deaths than comparable hospitals nearby.
Meanwhile, some scientists who do not sit on Sage have reached very different conclusions to the government’s experts.
Dr William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, says that many contacts are made at a packed modern event, and that the large crowds increase the chance of superspreading.
“Cancelling large events at the early stage of a pandemic is an essential part of reducing opportunities for transmission. Stopping Cheltenham on its own would not have preserved the UK from the pandemic, but delays in a coherent response made the initial surge more intense, and cost lives.”
Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser from 2000-07, argues that major events are “ideal” spreading episodes. Told by the Guardian that Sage scientists had advised that large gatherings have minimal impact on the spread of the virus, King said: “I find it very difficult to believe scientists said that; I am absolutely astounded.”
He pointed out that countries that responded well to Covid-19, and kept cases low, banned crowds at events early, including Greece, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. “You need to get in early, test, trace and isolate infectious people, take all action to stop the virus spreading. But here they allowed the virus to spread. There is nothing to be said for going down the herd immunity route; it involves so many deaths.”
The DHSC denied again that it was ever part of its plan to allow the virus to spread and attain herd immunity.
A DHSC spokesperson maintained the position stated by Hancock on 16 March: that “the risks of transmission at mass gatherings such as sporting events are relatively low”. Yet despite that stance, crowds are not being allowed at horseracing or Premier League matches as they restart; health concerns are now expressed about people gathering even outside stadiums without social distancing.
The DHSC did not acknowledge any mistakes or regret, and issued its standard statement. “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided by the latest scientific advice,” it said. “The government’s clear strategy all along has been to protect our NHS and save lives.”
Renoldi was at Hillsborough as a Liverpool supporter on 15 April 1989, and survived the terrible crush that killed 96 people.
After that disaster, a whole architecture of safety legislation was constructed to protect people from ever again being killed at a sporting event. Those who have lost loved ones as a result of such events going ahead earlier this year are now asking if that public health principle has been overturned.
“Now it feels terrible, horrendous,” he said. “It’s obvious that match should not have gone ahead. It’s another disaster. The people responsible should be held accountable for the decisions they took, and lessons learned so this can never happen again.”
Additional reporting by Caroline Bannock