Football fans could return to stadiums to watch matches in the Premier League and EFL in December under plans drawn up by government, Sportsmail can reveal.
Sources close to negotiations over the return of fans say officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have now submitted proposals to the Cabinet Office for spectators to attend games in areas where coronavirus infection rates are low, once the second national lockdown is lifted.
Government is yet to agree the proposals, but football sources are hugely encouraged that DCMS is prepared to put the national game on a par with other activities, following months of criticism that the arts has been allowed to admit an audience, while football has not.
Fans would have to be socially distanced and maximum capacity would be capped as happened when Brighton held a test event in August when Chelsea visited the Amex Stadium
Under the new DCMS proposal, fans in tier 1 and 2 areas would be allowed into grounds, subject to certain conditions. However, it is unclear which grounds would fall into the lower tiers as ministers consider a new four-tier system with a different set of rules when the nationwide lockdown ends on December 2.
Football clubs and fans were infuriated and frustrated that, under the previous rules, arts-lovers could attend a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, but no one could sit outside at a football match in the country’s top four divisions.
In other bizarre contradictions, fans sat in cinemas to watch matches next door to where the game was taking place and have even viewed the action on television in hospitality lounges in the same stadium.
The news will bring much-needed cheer for supporters and offer hope to cash-starved clubs, which have struggled since turnstiles were closed when the coronavirus pandemic gripped the UK in March.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is leading plans to return fans to football stadiums
However, there will concerns at the prospect of fans returning to stadiums.
The number of people dying with Covid-19 rose by 40 per cent in the first week of November, when the virus accounted for one in every six deaths in England and Wales and killed more people than at any time since May.
A weekly report by the Office for National Statistics showed that a total 1,937 people died between October 31 and November 6 and had coronavirus mentioned on their death certificate, up from 1,379 the week before. The week before that had also seen a 42 per cent increase in deaths.
Supporters have been locked out of stadiums since the first coronavirus lockdown in March
The absence of fans has placed clubs under enormous financial pressure, with ten struggling to make their payroll this month and others racking up huge debts.
All events in England – including in the arts – were banned from November 5, when a second national lockdown began, but ministers hope to bring back a regional tier system after nationwide restrictions are lifted on December 2.
Ministers are considering a new tier arrangement for December, in which there could be even tougher restrictions in tier three, but activities allowed to restart in tiers one and two.
And the DCMS proposals suggest that attendance could be allowed in those areas that are ranked within the lowest two tiers. The exact system is yet to be announced.
Clubs in the top four tiers of English football have had no fans in grounds since March
Is England heading for FOUR tiers after lockdown ends with still no mixing indoors, pubs to stay shut and a 9pm alcohol curfew?
In another sign lockdown measures are working, new Covid case numbers were recorded at 21,363 in the UK. The figure is new lab-confirmed cases recorded as of 9am yesterday
Fears were raised today that England could be headed for Christmas under a brutal four-Tier system after the blanket lockdown ends – with the prospect of tougher limits on mixing indoors and alcohol sales.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick delivered a strong hint that the levels of local restrictions will be bolstered even if the national curbs are lifted as scheduled on December 2.
He suggested some extra measures taken in Nottinghamshire – such as a bar on alcohol sales after 9pm – could be ’embedded’ in the arrangements.
And he said no decision had been taken on whether to tighten the lowest Tier One, after health chiefs branded it ineffective. That could potentially mean families being prevented from gathering indoors over the festive season.
Pressed on the issue in the Commons this afternoon, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to kill off the idea, saying it was ‘too early to do the analysis’. We will remain vigilant,’ he told MPs.
In a round of interviews, Mr Jenrick also signalled regions, rather than individual towns and cities, will be subject to the same Tiers, to make them more ‘consistent’.
And he said there will not be any ‘definitive’ decision on the shape of the rules post-December 2 until the end of this month.
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Tony Stewart, owner of Championship club Rotherham United, said: ‘I know clubs that are in dire straits. Fans bring income. It will be a great help. It means there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
‘And it will be fantastic for the fans. They want to get back in.’
Currently, the number of coronavirus cases are falling in Wales and north west England and they are below the national average in London, according to Government figures.
Under any return plan, attendance would be allowed at all professional sport and have to be socially distanced. The total numbers of fans would be capped.
Ultimately, clubs have to apply for a safety certificate from the local Safety Advisory Group, which includes local authorities and emergency services, among others, and that will set the permitted number of spectators and any conditions on the use of a stadium.
Clubs like Fleetwood Town are desperate for fans to return to generate much-needed income
Regardless of the numbers, at this point fans and clubs would seize the opportunity to bring supporters back into grounds.
Test events, such as Brighton’s preseason friendly with Chelsea in August, which was attended by 2,524 people, were a huge success and ministers and officials were impressed by how well supporters adhered to the rules.
Clubs were hugely disappointed that government backtracked on plans to allow limited numbers of fans to attend games from October 3, while theatres and cinemas opened their doors.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has previously suggested the number of people travelling to football matches makes the sport a different proposition to arts events, most of which are small scale.
Brighton’s chief executive Paul Barber has created a system for fans to return safely
However, Dowden and his officials appear to have listened and for the first time seem committed to placing football on an equal footing.
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson reassured a group of northern MPs in a Zoom call on Monday that he was pushing for fans to come back.
‘I pledge that when we come out of lockdown on Dec 2 we will work to have the crowds to come back,’ he told around 60 MPs, according to The Sun.
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.
Paul Barber hoped fans could return in the New Year but now it could be even earlier
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.