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Government holds line: no return for fans planned

MPs once again grilled the Government on its stance that, prior to the latest national lockdown, barred football fans from returning to stadiums.

Following a petition that reached nearly 200,000 signatures, MPs were debating the issue of getting fans back into football grounds – something that was put on hold in October as the COVID-19 infection rose despite other areas of the economy continuing to open up.

Stoke North MP Jonathan Gullis said that the “English game teeters on the brink of catastrophe” and the Government must put plans in place for supporters to return to grounds after the current lockdown is eased.

“The survival of many EFL clubs depends on the oxygen of match day revenue,” Gullis told the Commons. “The very least we could do is give them a fighting chance by allowing spectators, albeit a reduced number of them, back inside football stadiums.

“I believe that the Government’s current position on the return of fans to professional football is muddled, inconsistent and inherently unfair.

“Despite the fact that football is one of the most heavily regulated areas of crowd management, with rigorous COVID safety measures and a successful pilot programme under its belt, the sport is still, unfathomably, being treated differently from other industries.”

Prior to the latest lockdown, pictures of a packed London Palladium, hosting a Q&A with former-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, were shared across social media and drew substantial criticism from football fans who remain locked out of their grounds.

Other sectors hosting large crowds with poorly-enforced social distancing, such as Legoland Windsor, also drew criticism from football supporters desperate to see live football and put money into their club’s coffers.

Damian Collins MP, vice chair for the APPG for Football Supporters, said that “community football clubs are bleeding to death” as a result of the continued lock-out and lack of support from Government and the Premier League.

Collins said: “Here we are in November with the Football League back and the Premier League back, but there are no fans in the grounds and there is no financial support package.

“There will be up to 10 clubs that will not make their payroll in November, and we need to think about what kind of support will be there. Those football clubs have survived the first world war, the great depression, the second world war, and deindustrialisation. Are we going to let them die because of COVID, with the impact that would have on local communities?”

Richard Holden MP argued that the non-league clubs in his North West Durham constituency were hardest hit by the lack of matchday revenue coming in.

“When this lockdown ends, I implore the Government to let fans back into grounds,” Holden told MPs.

“The clubs in my patch are really small, but they are really reliant on income from their loyal fans. It can be done safely. We have not seen any COVID transmission at football clubs in my patch.

“We need to bring fans back, because it is the only way that those clubs, who are at the heart of their communities, can survive. They need some grant support, but that will not make up for the funding that they get from their fans.”

Despite pressure from MPs from around the country, the Government once again reiterated that it had no immediate plans to allow football fans back in.

Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston repeated his previous position that the COVID-19 infection rates were still too high and defended the Government’s decision to cancel ongoing pilot events at the start of October.

“I am fully aware of the importance of getting spectators back into stadiums for many sports, not just football, but rising infection rates across the country meant that, unfortunately, it was not the right time to proceed with a wider reopening on 1st October, as was widely recognised,” Huddleston told MPs.

“A key issue is that this is not just about fans sitting in stands within the stadiums – admittedly outdoors, as many Honourable Members have said – where infection rates are generally lower than indoors.

“We must consider the whole fan journey from home to venue, how fans travel to and from stadiums, the risk of gathering inside and outside such venues, and the high number of contact points that that risks.”

Huddleston said that the EFL and Premier League must continue talks to reach a deal on a bail out for the lower leagues and a full rescue package from the Treasury was unlikely.

“Money is on the table for the EFL, although I suspect it will not be enough for what has been proposed. I therefore encourage the EFL and the Premier League to continue their conversations professionally, and to recognise that they will both have to compromise.

“For the good of sport and football, they must come to a reasonable arrangement, because it would not be acceptable for the British public to bail out elite football. There is lots of money in elite football in this country.”

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