Football in need of clarity over Covid passports and return of fans to stadiums

It will hopefully be the first time in three football seasons a campaign is played from start to finish in front of full crowds, but 2020-21 is likely to kick off amidst uncertainty about exactly who is able to attend beyond the opening games.

This week Parliament went on its summer holidays until September, but not before Prime Minister Boris Johnson dropped a bombshell about what might be coming on its return.

On Monday, he floated the possibility that only those fully vaccinated against Covid-19 will be allowed into nightclubs “and other venues where large crowds gather”. It remains to be seen how that definition will apply to sporting events, whether the Government has changed its mind by the time comes to vote it into law, or if it passes despite some opposition.

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The football authorities who have advocated “Covid passports” to allow the return of capacity crowds, and/or its clubs must decide whether it is better to pre-empt something which may not happen or risk changing during the season. New legislation in September will put an extra burden and potentially cost at short notice on clubs to properly check “Covid passports”.

BACK IN THE GAME: Home fans in the East Stand at Elland Road to watch Leeds United take on West Bromwich Albion in May. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The Government’s schedule cannot be geared around football and its decision to bar those not fully vaccinated has been scheduled for late September so all adults have the opportunity to receive a second jab plus the 14 days for it to take full effect.

Supporters who were not fully vaccinated were allowed to attend this summer’s Wembley European Championship games if they could provide proof of a negative lateral flow test within 48 hours of kick-off but this week the Prime Minister unexpectedly warned: “By the end of September we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough.”

It could put unvaccinated season ticket-holders in a difficult situation, facing the prospect of having their seat effectively taken away two months into the campaign. The situation for those unable to be vaccinated on medical grounds is unclear at this stage.

Meanwhile, the new Football League season starts on August 7, with Leeds United’s Premier League campaign kicking off at Manchester United a week later.

England fans pictured during the Euro 2020 Group D match against Croatia at Wembley on June 13. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AP.

Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town play a League Cup first round tie at Hillsborough on August 1. Parliament is not due back from its summer recess until September 6, so no new law can be put forward before then. Some Conservative MPs are expected to vote against, though it is far too early to say if the proposals will be defeated, or even what exactly they will be.

The progress of the infection rate, hospitalisations and deaths are likely to have a bearing and in a new and ever-changing situation, the Government has certainly shown itself open to changing its mind.

For now it has been suggested the definition of “large crowds” may extend to all matches at grounds with capacities in excess of 20,000. The definition in step three of the roadmap out of lockdown was 16,000 capacities.

Huddersfield Town, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Sheffields United and Wednesday all play in stadia which hold more than 20,000. Despite average gates between 11,000 and just over 14,000 in those 2019-20 league matches open to the public, so do Hull City, Barnsley and Bradford City.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Leon Neal/PA

Whilst being sat in the open makes transmission of the virus much more difficult, Government hesitancy about opening up grounds has been more around the numbers travelling to games on public transport and congested concourses.

Yorkshire clubs are asking spectators attending pre-season friendlies to follow guidelines which go beyond the current laws, and it seems likely they will be expected to continue to do so to host full capacities for the first time since February/March 2019.

The Football League is expected to provide clubs with guidance before the season starts whilst the Premier League is understood to have been in talks even before Monday to look at a league-wide passport scheme to start as soon as the new campaign does.

In April, the two leagues, the Football Association and other sporting bodies wrote to the major political parties supporting “a Covid certification process” to allow fans back into grounds but with the proviso that: “This process must ensure that everyone can access stadia and must include arrangements that would verify a negative Covid test or an antibody test or vaccination certification.”