Crowds will return to sporting events this weekend at pilot events that could help define England’s way out of lockdown.
Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final between Leicester and Southampton at Wembley will have 4,000 fans, with tickets limited to Brent residents and key workers.
The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield will be around a third full for the first round of the World Snooker Championship, which begins on Saturday, with the final on 3 May set to be played in front of a capacity crowd of 980 people.
“It’s important we are successful because we are sending out a message to all other indoor sports, cinemas, theatres,” World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn told BBC Sport.
“The data that comes from this is going to be vital to getting to the land of milk and honey of normality.”
‘I hope I test negative’ – getting into a FA Cup semi
Anna Chapman, a university student who lives close to Wembley, is one of the lucky few who have a ticket for Sunday’s second semi-final.
“I just wanted to get back in a stadium,” she says. “Although it’s limited, it’s just to get back to experience the aura of a stadium, the emotions, the atmosphere. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Anna, an Arsenal fan, will have to have a lateral flow test – at an asymptomatic testing centre, not at home – no more than 24 hours before the game.
On arrival she’ll need to show the text or email message she receives with her result – she’ll only get in if she was negative. Ticket holders have also been requested to take a PCR test – which has to be processed in a laboratory – before and after the match to help the research programme work out whether there has been any impact on infections from the pilots.
“We have to show our text saying we’re negative to get in the stadium, so I definitely do want to test negative so I can get in,” she said.
The game is one of three pilot matches due to be played at Wembley. The Carabao Cup final on 25 April between Manchester City and Tottenham will have 8,000 fans – 2,000 from each club, with the remaining allocation split between groups including Brent residents and NHS staff – and there are plans to have a 21,000 crowd at the FA Cup final on 15 May.
‘A full Crucible will be one of my greatest moments’
At the Crucible, fans will also need to show they have had a negative lateral flow test to gain entry and, as at the football, fans have been asked to undertake pre- and post-event PCR tests for research purposes.
The pilots are part of the Events Research Programme (ERP) and will inform the government’s decisions on step four of its roadmap out of lockdown. Step four – when the government hopes to lift all legal limits on social contact – will begin no earlier than 21 June.
A document about the programme released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has revealed that so-called ‘Covid passports’ will not be used during any of the pilots announced.
“There will be no requirement for participants to show proof of vaccine,” it says.
“Participants in the ERP pilots published to date will have to provide a basic Covid certification that they have tested negative for Covid-19.”
The events will provide data on how large-scale crowds could be able to return to stadiums safely after this point.
“We’re starting at a third capacity, going up to 50%, 75%, and then for the final two days 100%,” said Hearn.
“In my 45 years of promoting sport, if we are full up for the final after the year we’ve been through at the Crucible, with 500 million watching this around the world, I think I’m going to put this down as one of our greatest moments.”
He added: “It’s exciting to be part of this process. I don’t want to name drop, I was talking to Andrew Lloyd Webber the other day and he was like, ‘Come on, get me crowds back in my theatres’ and I’m like, ‘Andrew, I’m doing my best’.
What about the vulnerable?
Fans under 18 cannot attend, and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable or pregnant have also been told not to apply for tickets for the pilots.
Tony Taylor from Level Playing Field, a charity that campaigns for inclusive matchday experiences and equal access for all disabled sports fans, said it was a “very ill-thought-through policy”.
“People have got the ability to make those decisions themselves and it really is a bit insulting to people who are undergoing cancer treatment or who have a particular diagnosis to assume that they can’t make those judgements themselves,” he said.
Hearn added: “There is discrimination and it’s not fair but in the bigger picture, in what we’re going to learn from the data and by creating the safest environment we can, I believe they’ve got the rules right.”