Amongst a range of annoucements made today by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the proposal to re-open stadiums across England from October 2020.
Whilst the Premier League resumed in June, all of the matches since Project Restart have been played behind closed doors. Mass gatherings had been on hold since lockdown was imposed in March 2020.
It’s reported that a phased resumption of crowds at sporting evenings will take place in August, but that this will not be immediately piloted using football grounds.
In an interesting blend of ‘test’ venues, it will see the safety of large gatherings observed at county cricket (Surrey v Middlesex), snooker (World Championships) and a race meeting (Glorious Goodwood).
Aside from the 5000 capacity race meeting, other than testing systems and processes for creating ‘Covid secure’ environments, football stadia offer a challenging environment to replicate. The sheer volume of spectators and their movements in football represent a huge logistical and public health challenge.
Indeed, there can be few sports which see such throngs of supporters, in vast numbers, gathering in tight confines for long periods. This is before you’ve factored in the travel arrangements to and from grounds and the strong tradition of large travelling away supports crossing the country each week.
It is of course inevitable that football grounds will ultimately be tested and the means of attending as a supporter adapted given the governments indicated roadmap towards reopening.
In a further sign of the broadly unchecked creep of intrusive surveillance in the UK, you can now expect the following if you’re attending a football match in person:
Fans must agree to a new code of behaviour that includes not attending if they potentially have symptoms of coronavirus or have been exposed to a person who has tested positive;
Social distancing must be observed in seating arrangements;
Crowd management plans should be in place, including the controlled entry and exit of fans and one-way systems;
Additional hygiene facilities should be installed inside venues, particularly at entrances and exits;
Screening procedures should be considered at stadia entrances.
As ever, the devil will be in the detail.
The Villa Underground is all for maintaining public safety, particularly in light of a pandemic emergercy.
However, ‘screening procedures’ and the means for ‘controlling’ persons simply wishing to take in a football match should be proportionate, transparent and subject to the appropriate levels of independent scrutiny. Questionable practices in relation to surveillance and implications for public and private civil liberties are serious topics, as illustrated by the Kings Cross scandel in 2019.
Whilst the prospect of returning to Villa Park to meet friends and feel some sense of normality again is alluring, the decision to proceed does at this point seem somewhat premature.
Indeed, this announcement stands in stark contrast to recent messages from health officials regarding the UK’s prepardness for the realistic prospect of a second Covid-19 wave. This is projected to begin this Autumn, with a worst case forecast seeing this coincide with the annual winter flu season.
Boris’ pronouncement comes on the same day that an eye-watering £3 BILLION of additional funding has been made to the NHS as means of preparing or a second wave. This after projections of a worst case outlook of 130,000 additional deaths being forecast just last week.
Whilst a full blown second wave cannot be predicted, what can be is localised ‘flare-ups’ of the type already seen in Leicester. In these situations, football is of course secondary to public health. However, what would happen to a team in a lockdown town or city? More importantly, how does the government and FA propose to have a model of prevention and contact tracing in place in the event it were to occur hours or days after thousands of fans may have congregated together.
This issue throws up many issues, not least of all from a Villa dimension.
Villa are no different in that they will have been hurt badly by the loss of matchday revenue. However, much will hinge upon how the club can feasibly transition to a new norm by October.
Villa Park is a relatively modern stadium, but every single part of the ground in terms of concourses and public areas are obvious bottlenecks. From the Holte End to the Upper Doug Ellis, social distancing might be possible once you’ve reached a designated seat, but before that point, it’s hard to see as workable in practice.
Then there’s the final issue, the notion of new normal. Football is nothing without the fans and The Premier League hope to fill grounds to 40% capacity. It is expected that season ticket holders will be balloted in order to gain attendance due to these reduced numbers.
We go to football matches for the crowd, for the hustle and bustle and the atmosphere it creates. Football at arms length, with staggered arrival times, distanced from your friends/family (if they can attend at all) and with a raft of restrictions attached, does little to appeal.
The return of fans will be vital to the survival of football up and down the league’s, but it must be done safely, transparently and with equity for all.
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