Up to 10,000 fans could return safely to large stadiums before the end of the year year, experts say, but government wants to show smaller events can be staged without incident before increasing attendances.
In particular, sport has to prove to cautious public health officials that clubs and fans will deliver super-safe small-scale events that do not contribute to the spread of the virus.
No timetable has been set by ministers for testing a larger event, and the need to build a body of evidence to show that sport is safe is likely to push the trial of bigger crowds back into January.
Government’s coronoavirus restrictions allow fans to attemd elite sport in tiers one and two
Supporters are back at racecourses and football grounds, among other venues, from today for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic gripped Britain nine months ago, with the exception of a handful of test events,
Under the government’s new coronavirus restrictions, elite sports events in tier two areas can admit up to 2,000 fans and up to 4,000 in tier one, although no events are scheduled in the latter zones.
As grateful as they are to be allowed to open the turnstiles again, clubs, particularly those with larger stadiums, are desperate to move safely to bigger capacities.
Clubs want government to set out a timetable that allows them to plan for larger events
That could happen quite safely in December at big grounds, according to experts who have been involved in planning for the return of supporters in multiple sports.
‘At those sorts of clubs [with large stadiums] I don’t see any reason why that would not be doable, and doing that quite quickly’ said Will Durden a director at Momentum Transport Consulting, a company that models the movement of people around stadiums.
One of the major challenges is transport to and from venues, especially in London where a lot of supporters tend to use public transport. However, at lower capacities more supporters can be persuaded to use their own car because parking is possible.
Wycombe Wanderers will be one of the first EFL clubs to play in front of fans under new rules
‘Down at the 20% [of capacity] level even a venue in central London dependent on public transport could get to those numbers. Bringing people in by car with staggered arrivals and departures is quite viable.’
Larger football and rugby clubs already have their plans in place to increase socially distanced attendance well beyond 2,000 or 4,000 fans, with entry and exit routes worked out, staggered arrivals where necessary and travel plans in place, after months of work with specialist crowd management consultants.
This work was done in line with guidance from the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and would not necessarily require the use of rapid coronavirus testing.
Premier League games have been played behind club doors since March because of Covid-19
Planning for the safe attendance of up to 30% capacity was based on social distancing, hence the importance that the events that take place from this week go smoothly.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport has left the route open to trialling bigger crowds by including provision for test events with more than 4,000 fans in guidance published on Tuesday.
There has been speculation that the first scaled-up event may take place in January, possibly at Twickenham, but Whitehall sources told Sportsmail there are currently no agreed plans, with all eyes on the smaller events taking place now.
Supporters will be forced to stay in concourses and must be seated to consume food and drink
The ability of clubs to accommodate supporters will vary from stadium to stadium.
Some clubs, like Fulham have tight grounds with limited entry and exit points, and the Cottagers have said they may limit their capacity to 1,500 in the short term.
At large grounds with bigger capacities, there is often more space on concourses inside and outside, greater access to toilets and many ways in and out, which helps.
However, transport remains a critical issue and Durden believes ‘50% [of stadium capacity] is potentially more of a challenge’.
Sportsmail understands that government planning for the use of rapid testing at sports grounds is now at an advanced stage and would use the ‘lateral flow’ method that has been successful in Liverpool.
Testing will be part of a blend of actions that will support opening grounds to more fans, above the levels that can be achieved by distancing alone.
Government guidance for hosting events includes provision of hand santisier at stadiums
To move numbers towards a half-full stadium would probably be dependent upon the use of ‘digital health passports’ that demonstrate a person has had a recent coronavirus test or the vaccine.
It is expected that testing would work by asking fans to take a test prior to the game and then validating them as free of the virus before they are allowed in.
Validation could be done via an app – potentially using a club’s own mobile phone application. It’s likely an electronic certificate confirming the person has tested negative would have to be displayed at the entrance.
‘All of it can be done and all of it has been done,’ said Lloyd Major, chief executive of Halo Solutions, which is part of a consortium of companies that has trialled testing and validating at sports events. ‘It has been operated perfectly well and with great success for three months.’
To date, test events have only allowed up to 2,500 fans, but clubs would like to host more
Major said the test would not necessarily have to take place outside the stadium. It could be done elsewhere or closer to home. However, the longer the time between the test and attendance at the event the higher the risk of someone contracting the virus and spreading it.
On the other hand, testing at the stadium could result in queues in which the virus could be spread or there simply may not be room to do it in addition to the security checks that already take place.
‘The more activities mean more space,’ said Simon Owens, a director at Movement Consulting, another firm that has supported sports clubs as they try to get fans back.
‘Any interaction with a piece of technology or an individual has the potential to create a queue.’
Fans urged to ‘play their part’
Sports minister Nigel Huddleston insists government wants to stage test events with larger capacities as soon as possible.
And today the minister has launched a campaign to encourage supporters to follow the rules when they return to watch the sport they love to show that sport is safe.
The ‘For the Love of Sport’ campaign includes a kitemark, which venues can display to show they are following the protocols and guidance set out by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and Government.
Brighton and nine EFL clubs held successful test events earlier this year
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said: “Sports and clubs have been working hard with their clubs to be ‘fan ready’, in line with the Government’s guidelines. This campaign will help fans know exactly how to play their part in supporting safely and minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus.
“We’re making great progress with vaccines and mass testing and we’re working closely with the Sports Technology and Innovation Group. By working together, we’ll be able to get crowds back to larger capacities as soon as it is safe to do so.”
While the overall message will focus on ‘For the Love of Sport’, each sport will integrate their own messaging specific to their club, venue or competition. This will focus on what all fans need to do in the venue to ensure it is as safe as possible for everyone.
Wycombe Wanderers will welcome fans back to their ground on Wednesday
David Ross, Chair of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group, which is developoing technology to help fans to return to grounds in large numbers, said: “Now more than ever, it’s really important that we all play our parts and follow the guidance. This will help us keep everyone safe, and over time allow more and more fans back into the grounds.”
The campaign has been launched to coincide with the return of a fans to live events, in line with Government guidance.
From today, horseracing welcomes crowds back at selected courses and the EFL will have supporters back in their stands. Over the weekend, the messages will be seen by fans attending a number of events, including Premier League and Premiership Rugby matches and England’s final rugby game of the Autumn Nations Cup.
Health and security checks at stadiums will have to be closely managed to avoid bottlenecks