Football fans cannot be subject to more double standards when the Government allows events to restart after the national lockdown is lifted, insist MPs, clubs and supporters
The call for fairness is timed to coincide with a Parliamentary debate on allowing football fans to return to matches as soon as it is safe to do so, which takes place at Westminster Hall on Monday.
The debate, which will hear from MPs fearful that their local clubs may fold if fans do not return at the earliest opportunity, has been triggered by a petition, which attracted support from 200,000 fans online.
There is still no timeframe in place for the safe return of football fans to stadiums
It comes after ministers allowed audiences to return to indoor theatres, galleries and cinemas, but abandoned plans for fans to access outdoor football stadiums in October as coronavirus infection rates increased.
Now, the football community is desperate for a level playing field once the second national lockdown, which prohibits attendance at any public events in England, is lifted.
‘I do not understand the government logic to allow people to attend theatres or even cinemas to watch matches, but not sit in stadiums in the open air,’ said MP Ian Mearns, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters.’ It defies logic’.
Supporters have been locked out of stadiums since the first coronavirus lockdown in March
The Football Supporters’ Association says the evidence shows football grounds can be opened safely.
‘We have done a lot of work with the football authorities developing models for hosting games in which fans can feel secure,’ said chief executive Kevin Miles.
‘The feedback we have had from all of our members involved in these test events has been that they feel at least as safe, if not safer, at those matches as they have at supermarkets, pubs and restaurants.
‘There are a lot of fans scratching their heads at the idea that football matches, with all these security measures, are not permitted while they see other entertainment events apparently operating at a far lower level of Covid security.
The Government shelved plans to bring fans back into football stadiums in October
‘We just want to be judged by the same standards.’
MPs from all parties are expected to join the debate. Among them will be Conservative MP for Blackpool and Cleveleys, Paul Maynard, whose constituency includes Blackpool FC and Fleetwood Town’s training facility.
‘The clubs are really important institutions,’ he said. ‘We need a concerted government approach, partly by getting more people back into grounds when it is safe.’
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden admits he is no football fan and neither is most of the cabinet
There is concern among clubs and campaigners that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and the cabinet are simply not interested in football and their decisions are driven by a lack of understanding of the value the national game brings to communities.
The suspicion is not completely unfounded in that only two of the current 21 MPs who make up the cabinet have noted football as an interest on their MP websites.
They are Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, who is a Liverpool fan having grown up in the city, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has previously expressed an interest in his hometown club, Southampton.
Clubs like Fleetwood Town are desperate for fans to return to generate much-needed income
‘It is unfortunate that there are not many members of the cabinet who are true football supporters,’ said Steve Curwood, chief executive of Fleetwood Town. ‘The cabinet does not understand what football clubs do.’
The Culture Secretary, who is responsible for the opening of venues, recently admitted he is no football fan during a visit to National League side, Boreham Wood FC, which is in his constituency.
‘I have to be honest, I’m not the biggest football fan,’ he told The Sun on Sunday. ‘I support Boreham Wood because it’s my home patch. I follow them as the local MP, but I’ve always enjoyed cricket.’
In October, Dowden explained to MPs that the government planned to allow socially-distanced spectators in grounds from October 1, but it was not possible.
‘That is what I desperately wanted to happen,’ he told the Department of Culture Media and Sport committee. ‘Because of where we are with the disease, it has not been possible to have that further easement.’
Brighton hosted fans at a test event in August when Chelsea visited the Amex Stadium
No club has done more to blaze the trail for the return of fans than Brighton and Hove Albion, who hosted a highly successful test event against Chelsea at the Amex Stadium.
The results of the experiment, in which 2,500 supporters enjoyed a socially-distanced experience, have been analysed by health experts and scientists at the University of Manchester, who are helping to mastermind the return of fans.
The Brighton model will be the basis on which all fans return to watch the elite game.
No audiences are allowed to attend events during the national lockdown in England
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber believes there is an outside chance that fans could attend matches in some way in the New Year, but expects it to be in the spring.
And like all club officials, he stresses it must be safe.
‘As much as we are keen to put our business back on a sound footing as soon as we can we cannot be and will not be immune to protecting the NHS,’ said Barber. ‘That is the priority at this moment in time.
However, once the Government is satisfied that it is safe to allow people to attend events again, Mr Barber sees no reason why football should not be included.
Brighton’s chief executive Paul Barber has created a system for fans to return safely
‘The message is when this lockdown is over and people are permitted to see live events, football should be allowed to have fans back in. All we are asking is to be treated the same. It is important when lockdown is over there is some consistency.
‘We have to trust football fans to do the right thing. Just because they follow clubs up and down the country does not mean they should not be trusted to behave appropriately.
‘If people can be trusted to go to the O2 or Royal Albert Hall, they can be trusted to go to football, too.’
Brighton Blaze the Trail for Fans
Brighton and Hove Albion have created a template for the return of football fans to stadiums, which other clubs are expected to follow when the turnstiles open again.
Brighton’s test event, in which 2,500 supporters attended a preseason friendly against Chelsea on August 29, was hailed as a huge success and witnessed by senior government officials.
The results have been analysed by experts from the University of Manchester and have been incorporated into a set of guidelines for Local Safety Advisory Groups, bodies made up of representatives from the local authority, NHS, police and others in each area, which give the go ahead for clubs to host matches.
Brighton’s test event in August will form the basis of fans’ return nationwide
The system includes:
- Distancing on the approach to the stadium to avoid crowds, as well as on concourses inside
- Masks to be worn everywhere except when seated, however that is expected to change and masks will probably have to be worn before, during and after a match
- Fans will have to carry photo-identification so the club knows they are the person who bought the ticket and they can be contacted in the event of a coronavirus outbreak
- Supporters will have to sanitize their hands on the way in and out of grounds
- Each fan sits alone, not even in a family bubble, with seats either side vacant and one row left empty between supporters, which allows stewards to manage the game more easily
- Unique branding was produced by Brighton in mint green for Covid-related information. This was used to communicate with fans before the game and at the match, so they knew what to expect and what to do
- Fans asked to give way to supporters climbing the stairs to their seat (because they would be exhaling more heavily) and turn away from others when passing them
Supporters had to wear masks at the Amex everywhere except in their seats
In addition, the Government’s Sports Technology and Innovation Working Group is looking at other initiatives, such as the possibility of mass testing of supporters so only those who test negative attend the match.
Crucially, analysis by the local health authority demonstrated the match did not result in a spike in COVID-19 infections.
A transport study after the Brighton event found that 60 per cent of supporters used public transport, even though parking was available, with many preferring to stick to their usual matchday routine.
Barber hopes fans could return in the New Year but he thinks spring is more likely
Clubs are also looking at how people will travel to and from the stadium.
Bristol City has developed a system in which limited numbers of fans can be allowed to attend matches from each postcode area, thereby ensuring that public transport is not overcrowded on any individual route.
In addition, Bristol City have said it would work with local pubs to manage the crowds around the stadium.