Xenia Sports – London
Fans will be asked to avoid excessive singing and shouting and to wear face coverings at all times in a bid to help Premier League clubs stage larger-scale test events in the near future.
The PA news agency understands the top-flight clubs have signed off on new protocols ahead of fans returning to Premier League matches this weekend for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
They include supporters wearing face coverings in all areas of the stadium and to be considerate of those around them when singing and shouting.
Premier League clubs are also understood to be ready to offer up their facilities to assist with the national coronavirus immunisation effort.
The Premier League protocols on face coverings go beyond what is mandated by the Government. It is hoped by taking these steps, along with many other mitigations, it will put the Premier League’s clubs in the best possible place to convince Government and the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG) task force that it is ready to be involved in trials with greater capacities than those allowed by the tier system.
Currently no professional football club is in tier one, where capacities are set at a maximum of 4,000. Half of Premier League clubs are in tier two, where capacities cannot go beyond 2,000, with the other half in tier three, where spectators remain barred.
However, the Government guidance does allow for specific approved pilot events to go beyond those limits.
David Ross, the chair of the STIG, told PA on Wednesday that “active discussion” is going on between the group and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport over bigger pilot events but warned: “Responsible fan behaviour really underpins that route back.”
The EFL is understood to recommend the wearing of face coverings at all times within a stadium but is leaving it up to individual clubs to decide on whether to mandate it.
At Premier League level, it is understood coverings must be worn at all times except when eating and drinking, unless exempt. Those exempt for medical reasons will be encouraged to record this information with the club whose game they are attending.
West Ham’s match at home to Manchester United on Saturday evening will be the first in the Premier League to welcome spectators since March, with others set to follow over the rest of the weekend including the Tottenham v Arsenal derby match on Sunday.
The first sporting events with spectators in attendance following the end of England’s second national lockdown took place on Wednesday.
UK regulators approved a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday, with other vaccines anticipated to be given the green light in the coming weeks.
The Premier League has ruled out making any effort to secure a private supply of vaccine in order to vaccinate players and other staff.
It is understood the introduction of an immunity passport – where a fan would have to have been vaccinated to gain entry to a venue – is not off the table from a Premier League perspective, but it may form part of a blended solution alongside other innovations such as rapid mass testing.
The league will consult with its own medical experts and externally over whether a significant increase in stadium capacities is possible after stage one of the planned vaccination programme, which intends to cover the higher-risk groups in the UK.
Meanwhile, the decision to allow supporters to return has been described as “political” by one League Two chairman.
Forest Green’s Dale Vince says as a football fan he is delighted supporters are allowed back, but he could not understand the rationale behind the decision.
“I do think we will see a spike after Christmas because of a relaxation of rules,” he told PA.
“We could have a lockdown in January and we could see fans excluded again, that’s possible.
“All summer long we were in tier one, we had a pilot event in September, it went really well, days later the Government said ‘no more pilots’.
“After the lockdown we came out in tier two and within days we were told we could have fans back.
“We don’t have fans back now because of an improvement in the background conditions, either the infection rate or hospital admissions, (because) that’s gone up, it’s near the March peak.
“What we’ve got is fans back for political reasons and I think (relaxing restrictions at) Christmas for political reasons.”