United Kingdom

Crowds allowed back into sport stadiums next week

Crowds of 4,000 can return to sporting venues, in low-risk areas, for the first time since March when lockdown eases next week, the Prime Minister is expected to announce.

The most dramatic reversal of spectator restrictions since the pandemic began gives football, rugby and horse-racing a chance of getting fans back from Dec 2, in low-risk areas. Under the new system, major outdoor stadiums in tier-one areas can welcome a maximum of 4,000 spectators, with bigger indoor venues allowed 1,000.

That same indoor limit applies in tier-two areas, but outdoor venues will be restricted to 2,000. In all cases smaller venues will be limited to 50 per cent capacity should the limit exceed half of seats available. Football and rugby crowds remain effectively banned in tier-three areas, however, as the Government introduces a new "drive in only" rule, which may only benefit some racecourses and motor-racing circuits.

In theory, the first matches to potentially have fans back could be Manchester United's Champions League clash with PSG on Dec 2 or, more likely, Arsenal's Europa League tie against Rapid Vienna at the Emirates the following evening. Manchester remains above the national average at 342 cases per 100,000 people, but, in Islington, there were 153 in the week ending Nov 16 - compared to a national average in England of 210.

The return of crowds is expected to be announced as Boris Johnson also outlines his plans for the return of outdoor grass-roots sport. A much-needed return for children's sport also plays a key part in plans after Telegraph Sport raised awareness of the plight facing youngsters during its 'Keep Kids Active in Lockdown' campaign.

However, for the revenue-starved sporting sector, the announcement that millions of fans can begin looking forward to returning is the biggest breakthrough of all.

Social-distancing rules will still apply at venues and attendees will have to stick to whatever bubble arrangements apply to their tier. However, encouraging data around three Covid-19 vaccines, the latest from Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and a nationwide roll-out of rapid testing has given the sector cautious hope of stadiums being full again by the spring.

The Premier League, which is one of eight key organisations, on the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (Stig), is working with Operation Moonshot on a blueprint to quickly scale up numbers inside stadiums.

England's top football league previously ruled themselves out of taking part in pilots due to the slow pace of numbers being scaled up after Brighton successfully entertained 2,500 supporters in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea. A proposed Oct 1 return for most sporting venues was cancelled in September due to a second wave of the virus.  

However, Gary Hoffman, the Premier League chairman, is understood to have told Stig that he wants England's top tier to be at the forefront of a roadmap for sports, concert halls and festivals. Venues such as Old Trafford are understood to believe they already have protocols in place to welcome back up to a third capacity.

Telegraph Sport disclosed last Tuesday how "four figure" crowds were being seriously considered by Christmas. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary,  later confirmed the door was "ajar" to the potential return of fans after advancements in rapid testing.

Both Mr Dowden and the Premier League have spoken positively of the potential for biological passports when rapid testing is scaled up across the country. Eventually, the vaccine could be added to a digital record kept by clubs and venues to ensure ticket holders are Covid-free.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to incentivise people to take the Covid test by saying ‘if you take the Covid test, and you’re in the clear, then you can go safely into stadiums and watch matches’,” Mr Dowden said last week.

It will not be clear until the end of the week which parts of the country will be clear of the new tier-three restrictions. In football's top four divisions last week, only League One's Ipswich and League Two's Colchester had infection-rate areas below the 100 per 100,000 mark.

The Government is keen to ease resentment in sport after arts venues such as the London Palladium, Albert Hall and O2 were given permission to sell tickets for up to 5,000 spectators last month. The Football Supporters' Association said the policy was "zero logic".

"I accept people's frustration at the inconsistency there," Mr Dowden told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last month.

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