Major sports are increasingly optimistic that capacity crowds will return to events and stadiums this summer, after the Chief Medical Officer signalled his support for lifting covid restrictions on Freedom Day.
Chris Whitty reportedly told a Cabinet briefing this week that the Government is on course to press ahead with lifting the remaining coronavirus restrictions on July 19.
And sources have confirmed to Sportsmail that Covid passports will not be compulsory at sports events and other mass gatherings when lockdown restrictions are lifted next month.
All of which opens the door to the first unrestricted attendances at sporting events since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic gripped the UK.
‘Increasingly, it looks like from July 19 we will be back to 100 per cent… and that would be fantastic news,’ a source in one sport told Sportsmail.
Beneficiaries of a relaxation of Covid restrictions would include cricket, Rugby League, horse racing, but also football, with the EFL season due to start on August 6 and the Premier League one week later.
One of the first events that could benefit from increased capacity is England’s T20 international against Pakistan at the Emirates Old Trafford on July 20, the day after Freedom Day.
Up to 18,000 cricket fans attended Edgbaston Stadium in Birmingham each day of the second Test against New Zealand earlier this month as part of a Government Covid ‘pilot event’
Despite half the summer having passed, there is still a lot of international cricket to be played with a five-Test series against India beginning on August 4.
Opening up would also help domestic cricket with The Hundred set to start on July 21 and the quarter, semis and final of the Vitality T20 blast scheduled from August 24.
Stuart Cain, chief executive of Warwickshire County Cricket Club, said cricket was ‘cautiously optimistic’ that stadiums would be fully open in July.
‘We have to listen to the data from the pilots and to what the scientists are saying generally, but the way things seem to be going we can start to look forward to how life is going to be post pandemic,’ Cain told Sportsmail.
Fans were not required to wear masks in the stands but did if they moved around the ground
The Hollies stand was vibrant during day one of the second Test Match against New Zealand
Edgbaston welcomed 18,000 supporters each day for the second Test against New Zealand, with all fans having to present a negative Lateral Flow Test on arrival at the ground.
The venue is now preparing to host 19,000 – or 80 per cent capacity – for the One Day International against Pakistan on July 13 as part of the Covid certification trial, which will allow entry with proof of two vaccination doses or a negative Covid test.
‘We are starting work out ways of operating large scale crowds,’ Cain told Sportsmail. ‘Covid is not going to go away so whatever we do we have to try to do it in a safe manner.
‘The pilots have been really helpful. It is positive news backed up by Chris Witty, who thinks we could open up again on July 19.
‘From where we were a couple of weeks ago, it feels like we are starting to go in the right direction based on the pilots and the mood of the scientists when they look at the wider Covid situation.’
Edgbaston developed an app to support the return of fans, which allowed spectators to identify congested areas within the stadium and order food and drink from their seats, in order to avoid crowds.
Chris Whitty has backed ‘freedom day’ going ahead on July 19 after it emerged he told the Cabinet it should aim to ‘get as much open this summer as possible before winter’
‘As far as we can tell [the pilot event] did not cause any outbreaks and we found that people were prepared to live with restrictions,’ added Cain.
Those restrictions included, wearing face masks when moving around the stadium, taking coronavirus tests and using hand sanitiser.
Some Conservative MPs are calling for the lifting of all restrictions after July 19, but the experience at Edgbaston and other events suggest sports fans are prepared to put up with some control measures if it means they can return to live sport.
Rugby League would also be a big winner if capacity crowds returned. Super League clubs are desperate for five-figure attendances with just under half of the season left.
Round 15 – out of 25 – of the Super League season is due to take place from July 22 to 25 and the final ten match weeks would all be played in front of fans, as well as well as the play-offs, semi-finals and final, which takes place on October 9.
And horse racing fans could find themselves unexpectedly packed in at The King George Weekend at Ascot on July 23 and 24 and Glorious Goodwood from July 27 to the 31
Freedom Day promises to return capacity crowds to sport this summer from July 19
The rate of growth in hospital admissions has been falling for the last nine days, despite hospitalisations continuing to rise
Whether fans can return in large numbers from Freedom Day will depend on further analysis of the health data in the weeks ahead.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to announce on July 12 whether the country will move from Step Three to Step Four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, one week later.
Currently, under Step Three, sports events are limited to 25 per cent capacity or 10,000 fans, whichever is lower.
The move to Step Four would see Covid restrictions lifted in society. Ministers may be prepared to proceed even if infection rates are high, as long as hospitalisations and deaths are under control.
Statistics published on Monday showed there had been a further 20,479 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.
The Government said a further 23 people had died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the UK total to 128,126.
Super League clubs are desperate for the Government to allow five figure attendances
Glorious Goodwood could welcome a capacity crowd if Freedom Day goes ahead on July 19
Currently sports events are limited to 25 per cent capacity or 10,000 fans, whichever is lower
‘It is looking encouraging for July 19,’ a government source told Sportsmail.
‘Everything we are hearing is that there is break between an increase in infections and hospitalisations and deaths, which is encouraging.’
Meanwhile, Covid certification is currently being tested as part of phase three of the Government’s Events Research Programme.
A number of the country’s sporting crown jewels have been saved in the last few months by being included in the programme, which is testing covid certification at increased capacities.
Under the scheme, fans must prove they have had two doses of vaccine or a negative lateral flow test.
The events include, the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final, which will have 60,000 fans in attendance; Wimbledon is half full, with the prospect on a full house on Centre Court for the finals’ days; 140,000 people will attend the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone and 32,500 will be at The Open Gold Championship at Royal St George’s each day.
Government ditches its plans for Covid passports for major events
Covid passports will not be compulsory at music festivals, sports events and other mass gatherings when lockdown restrictions are lifted next month.
Ministers are set to shelve plans for the mandatory use of ‘Covid certification’ after Freedom Day on July 19.
Plans for pubs and restaurants had already been put on the backburner following a backlash from MPs and the hospitality sector.
The Mail can now reveal that ministers have also dropped the idea of imposing them on mass events.
Organisers will, however, be permitted to run their own schemes, with the Premier League among those expected to introduce some form of certification to prove those attending football grounds do not pose a Covid risk.
It was widely believed, if successful, certification could be used to guarantee capacity crowds.
However, it now appears government wants to press ahead without certification after a number of ministers said the country will have to learn to live with the virus in the coming months and years, in a marked change in tone.
Ministers are set to shelve plans for the mandatory use of Covid certification, although individual sports, including the Premier League, will be allowed to use ‘passports’ if they choose to.
This raises the [prospect of sports going it alone and what that would entail is far from clear. Sports, including football, have made it clear from the outset that while they support covid certification they want it to be part of a national scheme.
The last thing football clubs would want to do is handle fans’ private health data.
The PM said at Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime that he ‘devoutly hopes’ that ‘Freedom Day’ will go ahead as planned on July 19.
He told MPs the UK’s vaccine rollout means ‘we have a higher wall of vaccination than virtually any other country in the world’ and that means the Government can proceed ‘with our cautious but we hope irreversible unlocking of the UK economy’.
Mr Whitty told a Cabinet briefing at the start of the week that the Government is on course to press ahead with lifting the remaining coronavirus restrictions on July 19, according to The Times.
Coronavirus case numbers continue to rise, but there has not been a corresponding leap in hospitalisations, prompting growing optimism that vaccinations have broken the link between infections and serious illness, paving the way for life to get back to normal.
A Cabinet source told the newspaper: ‘The view among the scientists was that we should get as much open this summer as possible before winter, which will be much more difficult. It was very encouraging.’