Shadow Sports Minister blames testing failures for delay to return of spectators

An answer is expected next week on whether venues will be able to welcome supporters back from October 1.

By Press Association Published: 17 September 2020 - 4.40pm

Government “incompetence” over coronavirus testing has hampered efforts to get spectators back into sports venues, the Shadow Sports Minister has said.

Governing bodies are hoping to get an answer next week about whether fans can return to stadiums on October 1, when capacities are set to be capped at between 25 to 35 per cent to allow for social distancing.

A number of pilot events across a range of sports have already taken place this month with more lined up, with capacities at those events currently capped at 1,000 spectators regardless of the size of venue.

Sport’s finances are in crisis because of the inability to welcome back spectators and Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, believes further progress could have been made with a more effective testing programme.

“If we had a competently run, good, functioning system, then that would help in every aspect of our lives and that would definitely help get supporters back watching the sport that they love,” she told the PA news agency.

“The reason for getting that testing system right is so that we can get back to normal a little bit. The failure to do that is having a huge knock-on effect to sport and a whole range of other things.”

Official NHS Test and Trace figures published on Thursday showed that the proportion of people in England receiving an in-person Covid-19 test result within the Government’s 24-hour target period has hit its lowest point since the middle of June.

There have also been reports of shortages in testing capacity in areas of high incidence, with the Conservative MP for Bolton West Chris Green saying people were increasingly turning up to hospital accident and emergency departments in the hope of getting a test in his area.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted to MPs on Wednesday that there is not enough capacity in the testing system, after demand “massively accelerated” in recent weeks.

McGovern also said the government had been too fixated on the Premier League’s Project Restart in the early period after lockdown, at the expense of lower-profile sport which relied more heavily on gate income.

“There has been too much focus on getting the Premier League back on people’s tellies and not enough focus on lower-league football, other sports and participation in grassroots sport,” she said.

The EFL is still in discussions with the Premier League over a rescue package, with its chairman Rick Parry saying solutions were needed “really, really quickly” in an interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Thursday.

The 2019-20 Premier League season restarted behind closed doors in June
The 2019-20 Premier League season restarted behind closed doors in June (Carl Recine/NMC Pool/PA)

The EFL estimates its clubs will lose a combined £200million without spectators this season.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that we’ve got to this point now where football could be described as being in real crisis,” McGovern said.

“If there had been that bit more attention from the government earlier on, it might have helped to avoid the situation.

“However, there’s no use crying over spilt milk, what we need now is a plan from the government so we know the work clubs have put in to making grounds Covid-safe is not going to waste, and that no town is going to lose a much-loved sport club.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said in June that getting the Premier League up and running was “the most important first step” in order to help secure revenue that could be used to support clubs lower down the pyramid.

The Premier League released a statement on Thursday evening urging the government to “remain committed” to allowing spectators to return on October 1, adding that the loss of matchday revenue was having a “significant impact” on its clubs and the football pyramid.

Another of the EFL’s pilot events to test the return of spectators has been cancelled, with Hull’s match against Crewe now back behind closed doors on public health grounds.

On Wednesday the league confirmed 10 matches where up to 1,000 spectators would be allowed access this weekend across the three divisions, but that is now down to seven after Hull were refused permission to go ahead.

The director of public health at Hull City Council said the local infection rate stands at 15.3 per 100,000 people, up from 4.2 per 100,000 last week.

Championship side Luton withdrew from the pilot scheme on Wednesday, stating they did not have sufficient time to make the necessary ticketing arrangements, while League Two club Morecambe pulled out later the same day because they had not yet received the approval of the local safety advisory group.

There was more positive news from rugby union and rugby league, with two more Gallagher Premiership matches and four Betfred Super League fixtures selected as test events.

Up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed to attend Bath against Gloucester at the Recreation Ground next Tuesday and Bristol against Leicester at Ashton Gate on September 30.

The same applies to the Super League matches on September 30 between Wigan and St Helens, Castleford and Hull, Huddersfield and Hull KR, and Leeds and Catalans Dragons.