Premier League clash with UK government over ban on spectators

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The Premier League has expressed its “disappointment” at the UK government’s decision to shelve plans to allow supporters back inside stadiums and claimed that the ongoing disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is costing the game in England £100 million a month.

Stadiums in England will remain closed to supporters next month after the government abandoned the tentative re-opening of grounds from Oct. 1 following a resurgence of cases of COVID-19. All stadiums in the top six divisions in England, covering the Premier League, EFL and National League, have been closed to fans since lockdown measures were imposed due to the pandemic in mid-March.

And with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing new restrictions on society on Tuesday which are expected to be in place for six months, there is now a real prospect of football having to survive without paying spectators for up to a year since the start of the pandemic.

But with fans allowed back inside games in small numbers in some European countries, the Premier League has said that the English game can safely accommodate supporters inside stadiums and avoid a financial crisis.

A statement said: “The Premier League notes the Government’s announcement today and while the health of the nation must remain everyone’s priority, we are disappointed that the safe return of supporters to matches has been postponed.

“The Premier League is certain that, through League-wide guidelines and a code of conduct developed with scientific experts and agreed by the Government’s Sports Ground Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted. This is already evident in other European leagues.

“Football is not the same without attending fans and the football economy is unsustainable without them.

“Last season, Premier League clubs suffered £700m in losses and at present, our national game is losing more than £100m per month. This is starting to have a devastating impact on clubs and their communities.

“We are confident that Premier League clubs, using innovative ways to get supporters safely back into grounds, will enable revenues to return to all levels of the game, as well as maintain solidarity arrangements, current tax contributions and financial support for local and national economies.

“While there is a current pause in a date for fans returning to sports venues, the Premier League and our clubs will not slow down in our preparations for providing safe, bio-secure environments. We will continue to work with Government to bring supporters safely back into grounds as soon as possible.”

Low-scale test events at sporting venues in the country, including 2,500 fans attending a preseason friendly between Brighton and Chelsea at the Amex Stadium, have been staged in recent weeks ahead of the anticipated re-opening of grounds at a limit of 30 per cent capacity from Oct. 1.

And last week, the Premier League issued a statement urging the government to “remain committed to the Oct 1 date” due to the “high safety standards in place” at stadiums.

But speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, cabinet office minister Michael Gove said that the Oct. 1 plans must be paused.

“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning,” Gove said. “It wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans.

“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, get more people back.”

Liverpool’s Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid at Anfield on March 11 was the last major game to be played in front of a full stadium in England and the Liverpool city council has since opened an investigation into whether the fixture caused a spike in COVID-19 infections.

And Gove admitted that question marks raised by the staging of such sporting fixtures early in the pandemic are a factor in the cautious approach now being taken.

“People look back now at the beginning of the pandemic at some of the major sporting events then and ask the question why were they allowed to go ahead,” Gove said.

“What we must do is look at sporting events now with caution but we also recognise that sport is a vital part of this nation.

“We’re looking at everything we can do to support our athletes, our great clubs, through what will be a challenging time.”