Covid upsurge leads the UK govt to pause return of fans

Covid upsurge leads the UK govt to pause return of fans

LONDON • The British government has postponed plans for the controlled return of fans into sports stadiums as part of new restrictions announced yesterday to tackle a second wave of Covid-19.

The government had been planning to allow 25-33 per cent capacities from Oct 1, giving sports a funding boost after months of empty stadiums.

“We have to acknowledge that the spread of the virus is now affecting our ability to reopen business conferences, exhibitions and large sporting events,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament.

“So we will not be able to do this from the first of October. I recognise the implications for our sports clubs, which are the life and soul of our communities… the chancellor and culture secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them.”

Senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove earlier told the BBC that, regarding the return of spectators, the government was looking into “how we can for the moment pause that programme”.

The UK has raised its Covid-19 alert level from three to four, meaning transmission is “high or rising exponentially”. Further measures include a 10pm closing time of all pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality venues in England, starting from tomorrow.

On Monday, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance predicted that, based on current trends, the daily count of cases will reach about 50,000 on Oct 13, and a month later, exceed 200 deaths every day.

Keeping fans away from stadiums will come at a heavy financial cost. The Premier League has warned that football stands to lose £100 million (S$175 million) a month when games are played behind closed doors while the Rugby Football Union plans to make 139 staff redundant as it tries to cope with £107 million in lost revenue.

Across Europe, virus infections are also growing along with restrictions, though this has not deterred organisers of major sports events.

The past weekend in Germany saw sprinkling of fans at football grounds. Some 9,300 were in Borussia Dortmund’s 80,000-capacity stadium for their 3-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach, while other stadiums had as few as 300 fans.

“This (spectator numbers) is something that will need to be reviewed every week,” Dortmund sports director Michael Zorc said. “It was good (to have at least some fans) because you could see it was a different atmosphere. I think the fans were happy as well.”

    $175m Monthly losses incurred by English football when matches are played behind closed doors.

Tomorrow’s Uefa Super Cup match between Champions League winners Bayern Munich and Europa League holders Sevilla is more ambitious, and riskier, with Uefa and local authorities allowing Budapest’s Puskas Arena to fill up to one third of its 67,000 capacity.

It will also feature travelling fans with 3,000 tickets available to followers of both clubs, with strict hygiene measures like social distancing, temperature checks in place, while travellers from abroad will have to present a ticket and proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

Nurburgring, meanwhile, can welcome up to 20,000 fans next month when it hosts the Formula One German Grand Prix, after local authorities gave it the go-ahead alongside stringent health measures.

Spectators have been conspicuously absent from motor sports’ top competition this year due to restrictions but races later in the calendar have started to open up. The previous race at Tuscany’s Mugello circuit held around 2,000 fans, and the organisers of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi are hoping for an audience of 30,000.

Tennis’ French Open, which starts on Sunday, will be the first Grand Slam to welcome crowds. The US Open earlier this month was played behind closed doors.

Having optimistically toyed with allowing 20,000 fans to squeeze into the compact Roland Garros site, that figure was downsized to 11,500, only to be slashed again to 5,000 by the French Tennis Federation as infections rose.

The clay-court tournament has come under fire from several players. Last Monday, at the start of the qualifiers, brought more bad news after organisers said six players in the men’s and women’s qualifying draw had been withdrawn due to Covid-19 concerns.

Fears over the spread of the virus had already prompted defending champion and women’s world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty to skip the Paris event, where players and their entourages will be confined to two bio-secure hotels.