December 4, 2022

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Premier League still planning to use Covid Passes to keep grounds open

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The Premier League and the EFL are increasingly hopeful that Freedom Day on July 19 will allow full capacities at stadiums when the season kicks off in August.

But the top flight is still preparing to use Covid Passes to keep grounds fully open throughout the autumn and winter, if coronavirus infection rates soar.

This week it emerged ministers are set to shelve plans for the mandatory use of Covid certification, with the growing expectation that coronavirus restrictions will be lifted on July 19 – Freedom Day.

That has raised expectation among all major sports that grounds will be fully open in July and August, with one source close to the discussions on return of fans saying it was now ’80/20 in favour’ that spectators will be back from July 19. 

This brings the exciting prospect of full stadiums in the Premier League for the start of next season on August 13 when Brentford host Arsenal and the EFL programme on August 7.

However, there is concern in Government and football that Covid may surge again as winter approaches, which could limit capacities. Sportsmail understands the Government is ‘more concerned about November 1 than mid-August’ and Covid certification is seen a ‘back up option’ that can keep the show on the road.

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Cabinet this week that the rise in Covid cases was not putting unsustainable pressure on hospitals in England now, but winter will be difficult.

Fans are already returning to sport in big numbers as part of the Events Research Programme

Fans are already returning to sport in big numbers as part of the Events Research Programme

Fans are already returning to sport in big numbers as part of the Events Research Programme

A source said Professor Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had suggested ‘we should get as much open this summer as possible before winter, which will be much more difficult’.

Professor Whitty, one of the architects of lockdown, was said to be ‘cautiously optimistic’ that rules could now go – but warned that the winter would be ‘challenging’ for the NHS.

If infections rise and the NHS is under pressure later in the year, attendance at mass events is likely to come under very close scrutiny.

The Premier League executive director Bill Bush, along with the EFL and other sports, has made clear to government repeatedly that Covid Passes, which include proof of two vaccine doses or evidence of a negative coronavirus test, are the best way to secure full capacity in stadiums.

Bush told MPs in May that football needed certainty will full houses from the first game of the season to the last. Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters has said similar.

45,000 fans - the vast majority of them English - roared on England against Germany

45,000 fans - the vast majority of them English - roared on England against Germany

45,000 fans – the vast majority of them English – roared on England against Germany

18,000 supporters attended the second Test against New Zealand each day at Edgbaston

18,000 supporters attended the second Test against New Zealand each day at Edgbaston

18,000 supporters attended the second Test against New Zealand each day at Edgbaston

And Sportsmail understands that view has not changed, despite ministers going cool on the idea of Covid certification, as Conservative backbenchers push for the complete removal of restrictions after July 19.

ALL SPORTS HOPEFUL

A host of major sports are increasingly optimistic that capacity crowds will return to events and stadiums this summer, if Covid restrictions are lifted on Freedom Day – July 19.

Beneficiaries would include cricket, Rugby League, horse racing, as well as football.

One of the first events that could benefit from increased capacity is England’s T20 international against Pakistan at the Emirates Old Trafford on July 20, the day after Freedom Day.

Despite half the summer having passed, there is still a lot of international cricket to be played with a five-Test series against India beginning on August 4.

Opening up would also help domestic cricket with The Hundred set to start on July 21 and the quarter, semis and final of the Vitality T20 blast scheduled from August 24.

Rugby League would also be a big winner if capacity crowds returned. Super League clubs are desperate for five-figure attendances with just under half of the season left.

Round 15 – out of 25 – of the Super League season is due to take place from July 22 to 25 and the final ten match weeks would all be played in front of fans, as well as well as the play-offs, semi-finals and final, which takes place on October 9.

And horse racing fans could find themselves unexpectedly packed in at The King George Weekend at Ascot on July 23 and 24 and Glorious Goodwood from July 27 to the 31

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So far, sports fans have willingly accepted the use of Covid Passes and testing at matches, as well as other restrictions, such as wearing masks when moving around stadiums, in return for the opportunity to watch live sport safely.

Supporters at large scale tests, including Edgbaston, where 18,000 people watched each day of the second test against New Zealand, and Wembley, where 45,000 fans saw England beat Germany on Tuesday, have complied with the rules and entry and exit to the grounds has been largely unhindered.

In addition, Premier League supporters’ trusts spoken to by Sportsmail have been overwhelmingly supportive of the use of Covid Passes – on a temporary basis – if it ensures grounds are safe and full, next season.

Phase three of the Government’s Events Research Programme is now testing very large capacities with Covid certification.

It includes, Euro 2020 semi-finals and final at Wembley with 60,000 fans, a capacity crowd on Centre Court at Wimbledon for the finals’ days, 19,000 people at Edgbaston for the One Day International against Pakistan and 140,000 people at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.

These events give the EFL hope that supporters will be back in large numbers come August, but they remain supportive of Covid Passes, too.

A spokesman for the EFL said: ‘We we are encouraged that Government has given the green light for over 60,000 fans to return for the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 and we hope that seeing Wembley 75 per cent full represents another milestone along the way to having stadiums around the country fully open for business from 19 July.

‘With a requirement to get back to full capacity for the start of the 2021/22 season, the EFL welcomes the ERP trialling the use of certification as it could yet play an important role in getting supporters into grounds, alongside other policy measures.’

Currently, the country is in Step Three of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, with crowds limited to 25 per cent stadium capacity or 10,000 supporters, whichever is lower.

Government sources say the data, which shows limited hospitalisations and deaths, even though infections are rising, is ‘encouraging’ for the lifting of restrictions and the return of fans from July 19, the earliest date ministers say the transition to Step Four can take place.

And Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said today ‘we are making very good progress towards July 19’.

Yesterday, 26,068 new Covid cases were recorded – a rise of almost 70 per cent in a week, and the highest figure since late January

Yesterday, 26,068 new Covid cases were recorded – a rise of almost 70 per cent in a week, and the highest figure since late January

Yesterday, 26,068 new Covid cases were recorded – a rise of almost 70 per cent in a week, and the highest figure since late January

But there is growing confidence in Government that the vaccination rollout has severely weakened the link between infections, and hospitalisations and deaths

But there is growing confidence in Government that the vaccination rollout has severely weakened the link between infections, and hospitalisations and deaths

But there is growing confidence in Government that the vaccination rollout has severely weakened the link between infections, and hospitalisations and deaths

Daily hospitalisations due to Covid were running at 263, up by just 6.4 per cent in the last week and far below the January peak of 4,579 in a single day

Daily hospitalisations due to Covid were running at 263, up by just 6.4 per cent in the last week and far below the January peak of 4,579 in a single day

Daily hospitalisations due to Covid were running at 263, up by just 6.4 per cent in the last week and far below the January peak of 4,579 in a single day

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Cabinet this week that the rise in Covid cases was not putting unsustainable pressure on hospitals in England, as shown

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Cabinet this week that the rise in Covid cases was not putting unsustainable pressure on hospitals in England, as shown

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Cabinet this week that the rise in Covid cases was not putting unsustainable pressure on hospitals in England, as shown

No decision has been taken on Covid certification, but sources suggest that if it is used it is now likely be for large-scale crowds only and ‘later on’ in the year.

Previously, Cabinet Secretary, Michael Gove, suggested crowds above 20,000 may require Covid passes, which if implemented, would include all of the Premier League grounds and a significant number in the EFL.

The evolving government position about sports being allowed to go it alone on Covid Passes raises questions and challenges.

‘All sports are clear – they would want to use the NHS app,’ said a source from one sport involved in discussions. ‘If you deliver your own solution, you start managing people’s health data.’

There is also the question of how any system would be implemented at the turnstile. While it is technically possible to integrate the Covid pass with turnstile technology it may be too expensive for lower league clubs and some other sports.

‘The Premier League can afford Covid certification, other sports can’t,’ said a source at another sport. ‘The difficulty is in the restrictions left if there is no Covid certification.’

Chris Whitty has backed 'freedom day' going ahead on July 19 after it emerged he told the Cabinet it should aim to 'get as much open this summer as possible before winter'

Chris Whitty has backed 'freedom day' going ahead on July 19 after it emerged he told the Cabinet it should aim to 'get as much open this summer as possible before winter'

Chris Whitty has backed ‘freedom day’ going ahead on July 19 after it emerged he told the Cabinet it should aim to ‘get as much open this summer as possible before winter’

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