Fans could return to sports events across England on 1 October, the government has announced. Mass gatherings at stadiums and grounds has been banned since lockdown measures were introduced in March but that will ease in the autumn if test events prove successful.
The world snooker championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre on 31 July, the Glorious Goodwood horse racing festival on 1 August, and two country cricket friendly matches, one of which is likely to be Surrey v Middlesex at the Oval on 26-27 July, are set to be the first to have spectators since coronavirus brought sport to a halt four months ago.
Some other test events are scheduled to follow, all observing social distancing measures, with the hope that they will provide a safe enough framework for the return of spectators to all competitions.
The Prime Minister said “From October we intend to bring back audiences in stadia and allow conferences and other business events to recommence, again these changes must be done in a covid-secure way subject to the successful outcome of pilots.”
The announcement has been met with bemusement and scepticism given the large number of people who continue to contract and die from coronavirus in England, but it will be welcomed by sporting authorities for whom the absence of live crowds has led to financial hardship and, in some cases, crisis.
The government said the test events “have been carefully selected to represent a range of sports and indoor and outdoor spectator environments” and they will all be subject to a number of strict conditions.
These include venues being ordered to provide information on measures being taken to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 infection, a code of behaviour for spectators advising them to take a responsible approach, such as staying away if suffering from any symptoms of the virus, and careful control of seat bookings to ensure social distancing is observed.
The Premier League, which resumed last month in empty stadiums, has offered to try out test events, with its chief executive, Richard Masters, saying football will not be “back with a capital B” in this country until crowds return.
This month discussions were held regarding the return of fans to all grounds next season as part of “stage five” of the return of professional sport, with the closing of toilets at half-time, filling one in every three seats and a ban on away support among the ideas proposed.
“For months, millions of us have felt the void of being unable to go to the match to support our team or attend a top-class sporting event. So I am pleased we are now able to move forward with a plan to help venues safely reopen their doors to fans,” said the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston.
“I recognise not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia.
“Although it will remain some time before venues are full to capacity, this is a major step in the right direction for the resumption of live spectator sport across the country.”
The Rugby Football Union, which has forecasted losses of up to £107m on top of the £15m hit it has already taken because of the pandemic, said: “We welcome the government’s announcement that a small number of sporting events will be used to pilot the safe return of spectators. It’s a positive step towards the return of competition with sports fans this autumn.”