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Scientists urge Premier League and Government to keep stadiums full even with further Covid restrictions

Football and Government have been urged by scientists to hold their nerve on keeping stadiums full even if ministers are forced to launch restrictions elsewhere as Covid cases soar.

Premier League clubs remain in fear of being forced behind closed doors this week after the UK Health Security Agency warned it was too early to downgrade the threat from the new strain.

However, after UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries described a “glimmer” of hope around data showing omicron can be less severe, public-health experts believe sporting venues should be safe.

“Stadiums are not inherently risky places,” said Professor Robert Dingwall, a Nottingham Trent University sociologist who has advised Government on Covid policy. 

The main risk to fans is in their choice of transport or whether they visit a bar before or after the match, he explained. “Given this, and the early, if still uncertain, indications that omicron causes less severe disease than delta, it is hard to see how additional restrictions could be justified. Indeed, some of those that are in place have such a weak evidence base that they should be reconsidered at an early opportunity. More data might change this view but that is unlikely to be available until after the New Year.”

So far it is outbreaks among players that have been the main cause of chaos in England’s top tier. The busy Boxing Day schedule has already been hit with three postponements, following outbreaks at Leeds, Watford and Everton.

However, there is hope that the latest Covid crisis will not lead to venue shutouts. The UKHSA estimates that someone with Omicron is between 31 per cent and 45 per cent less likely to attend A&E and 50 per cent to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital than an individual with the Delta variant.

If restrictions are forced upon England, Prof Keith Neal, of the University of Nottingham, suggested a compromise for sports around Covid passports that would only allow spectators who are either fully jabbed having recovered from recent infection.

“No one else uses lateral-flow tests in a passport,” he said. “Only fully vaccinated or recent infections is what the rest of Europe uses….They don’t need to check everyone at an event, just enough to be a deterrent to getting caught and big fines.”

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted any further restrictions for England over Christmas, Monday is the first opportunity for Government to seriously consider if changes in sport and the wider community are needed. Prof Neal, who has 25 years of experience in the research of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Nottingham, agreed the “main problem” for major sporting events remains public transport.

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