A training session at Aston Villa (image: John Garghan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Trevor Fisher on the contradictions between policies on pubs and pitches

On Wednesday 23rd September, the football authorities moved the kick off times in the Fulham-Aston Villa and Liverpool-Arsenal evening games at the end of the month forward by fifteen minutes. This was to allow the games to end before 10pm, when pubs close according to the Johnson government’s latest policy shift.

It is no secret that Premier League football relies on TV money nowadays, but it also relies on spectators long-term, and as the government has decreed that spectators cannot attend live sport in the near future, the implications are bad for sport and worse for a rounded policy on the pandemic.

The contradiction in banning spectators but allowing drinkers to meet is one Labour must challenge. It was highlighted by Rick Parry, CEO of the English Football League, who criticised the ban on spectators while pubs were allowed to open, saying it was bizarre that “you can still go into pubs and clubs and circulate, albeit you have to come out at 10 o’clock”. He pointed out that seven successful pilots had been staged by the EFL showing limited numbers could attend football matches. This was a step towards ticket income returning – the lower division clubs in the EFL, unlike the Premiership, have no chance of surviving on the very limited TV income they receive.

There is no rational explanation for this contradiction, as it is more difficult to enforce social distancing in thousands of pubs than at a limited number of performance venues. There is no rationale for a 10pm curfew – the virus does not strike after the watershed. While it is obviously necessary to control large crowds and maintain social distancing, the latest policy has no serious thinking behind it. Perhaps ministers recall the fallout from the Liverpool-Athletico Madrid Champions League game which allegedly brought the virus into Liverpool, and the Cheltenham Racing Festival which did the same for those who attended. But the mistakes which led to unsupervised mass gatherings cannot justify blanket bans.

In the longer term football, along with other sports, live music and culture, will suffer serious financial and cultural damage if this policy continues unmodified. Public health remains the priority, so restrictions will be necessary. But when attendance at live events can be allowed without danger that should be the case. The EFL was taking steps toward this and have been blocked by arbitrary government action. The danger of a backlash if more reasonable policies are not implemented is real.

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