Spectators could be allowed back into sporting events in England on 1 October provided a series of test events pass by successfully in the coming weeks.
Gatherings of more than 30 people have been banned in England since lockdown measures were introduced in March to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking at a Downing Street briefing today (Friday), UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “We will pilot larger gatherings in venues such as sports stadia with a view to a wider reopening in the autumn.
“From October we intend to bring back audiences in stadia and allow conferences and other business events to recommence.”
The government indicated it would allow limited numbers of spectators into the test events to develop a framework for their more widespread return across the country.
The test events will include the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from July 31 to August 16, the Glorious Goodwood racing festival from July 28 to August 1, and two county cricket friendlies, one of which is likely to be Surrey v Middlesex at the Oval from July 26-27.
Johnson stressed that the test events would need to be delivered in a Covid-secure way and said they had been “carefully selected to represent a range of sports and indoor and outdoor spectator environments”.
The test events will be expected to provide clear information on the Covid-mitigation steps they have taken and a code of behaviour for fans. They will also be expected to provide alternatives to public transport to travel to match venues and additional hygiene facilities.
It is expected audience capacities will be restricted at the test events with seating carefully controlled to observe social distancing rules. This is also likely to be the case for the full return of spectators in October, should the test events pass without any hitch.
However the UK government has also revealed it could remove the requirement to socially distance altogether by November, if the virus is under control at that stage.
The announcement will be welcomed by rights-holders whose commercial well-being depends more on ticketing revenues. The English Premier League has taken place behind closed doors to shore up the league’s massive media revenues, but clubs in the lower-tier English Football Championship (EFL) rely more heavily on matchday income.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Sport, Heritage and Tourism, Nigel Huddleston, said: “For months, millions of us have felt the void of being unable to go to the match to support our team or attend a top-class sporting event. So I am pleased that we are now able to move forward with a plan to help venues safely reopen their doors to fans.
“I recognise that not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue, and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia.
“Although it will remain some time before venues are full to capacity, this is a major step in the right direction for the resumption of live spectator sport across the country.”
Yesterday, (Thursday) SportBusiness revealed that the England and Wales Cricket Board had installed a network of Bluetooth sensors at the two venues for the three test matches between the England cricket team and the West Indies this summer.
The technology is being used to maintain social distancing on site and prevent too many people from congregating in one area. It also enables the ECB to track and trace any outbreak of the virus at the matches. The developers of the technology suggested it could be scaled up to isolate outbreaks in much larger gatherings of people.