Sports venues in England are set to return to full capacity from July 19 after the Government announced plans to ease the remaining restrictions on social distancing.
Crowds have either been kept out entirely or allowed in severely restricted numbers since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK in March last year. Test events with higher attendances have been held as part of a Government programme since April.
However, the Government is confident that the success of the vaccine rollout has helped to break the link between rates of infections and rates of hospitalisation and death due to Covid-19.
A final decision on whether to lift the remaining restrictions in England on July 19 will be taken next Monday, but the intention is for stadiums to operate at full capacity from that date.
Recent test events have trialled the use of Covid certification – where spectators must provide proof of either full vaccination, a recent negative test or existing immunity – but these so-called ‘vaccine passports’ will not now be compulsory for entry.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at Monday afternoon’s press conference: “We’ll move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.
“From step four we will remove all legal limits on the numbers meeting indoors and outdoors. We will allow all businesses to reopen, including nightclubs, we will lift the limit on named visitors to care homes and the numbers of people attending concerts, theatre, and sports events.”
The announcement was positively received by the Premier League and the EFL.
The Premier League said it was “looking forward to full stadiums in the 2021/22 season”.
“Fans have been hugely missed so we welcome today’s announcement by the Government,” it said in a statement.
“As we move towards a Government decision on step four of the roadmap and beyond, we will continue to work with football stakeholders and relevant public authorities to ensure that the return to full capacity is done in a way that keeps everyone safe.”
EFL chief executive Trevor Birch said the announcement would allow it to “finally press forward with our plans to see a full return of fans to EFL stadiums” from the start of the new campaign.
He added in a statement: “Football has been planning for this outcome since the outset of the pandemic and having been forced to endure empty stadiums since March 2020, the message from EFL clubs is that we are ready to re-open and welcome fans back in numbers.
“From the EFL’s own participation in the Events Research Programme (ERP) and our clubs’ extensive experience built up over many years, we are confident that all our clubs can successfully manage large-scale events and we will continue to work with the Government on the guidance that will help support their matchday operations.”
The decision to allow sports venues to reopen without any restrictions ends a period where spectators have been either totally barred or restricted to small numbers.
A first attempt at reopening with venues at up to one-third of normal capacity on October 1 last year was scrapped amid rising cases, hospitalisations and deaths, with the country entering a second national lockdown just over a month afterwards.
Fans did return in very small numbers when the Government instituted the regionalised tier system at the start of December, but again a spike in cases and deaths led to that being abandoned by the end of that month.
The Government’s ERP got under way in April and is now into its third phase, and has been looking at ways to get spectators back into venues in financially viable numbers.
The findings from the first phase of the ERP were published on June 25. It concluded that there were no substantial outbreaks linked to the nine sporting and cultural events featured in phase one, and found only 28 positive cases linked to the more than 58,000 people who took part in the test events. Those events included the FA Cup semi-final, one FA Cup semi-final, the Carabao Cup final and the World Snooker Championship.
However, the report said the data should be treated with “extreme caution” due to the low return rate of PCR tests from the participants.
Since May 17, all venues in England have been allowed to admit spectators on a limited basis as part of step three of the Covid recovery road map. For outdoor venues with a seated capacity of 16,000 or above, the limit is 10,000 or 25 per cent of capacity, whichever is lowest.
For outdoor venues with less seating than that, the limit is 4,000 or 50 per cent of capacity, whichever is lowest. For indoor venues, the limit is 1,000 or 50 per cent capacity, whichever is lowest.