Premier League to continue despite England lockdown

Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, the U.K. Office for National Statistics estimated that over one million people in England suffered from COVID-19. This figure equates to around 2.06 percent of the population of England, and while an average of 1 in 50 people are estimated to be infected in the nation as a whole, the Office for National Statistics estimated the ratio to be as high as 1 in 30 people in London.

In a press conference on Jan. 5, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that 1.3 million people across the U.K. had been vaccinated, including 23 percent of those over 80 years of age in England. However, the 40 percent increase in hospitalization compared to hospitalizations during the first peak meant that he had “no choice” but to impose a new lockdown. The regulations, which could be in place until the end of March, mandate, among other things, that it is illegal for citizens to leave their homes without a “reasonable excuse,” and that an offense can result in a fine. The rules also state that while amateur sports teams will not be allowed, elite sport such as the Premier League will continue to operate.

Despite the precedent of a three-month pause in accordance with the U.K. lockdown back in March of last year, it seems that the England top flight has avoided another suspension. Although health officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of reducing interpersonal contact and sporting facilities have been closed, the English Premier League, following the Scottish Premier League, will be permitted to train and play out their scheduled fixtures. Citing frequent, rigorous testing procedures coupled with established bio-secure bubbles, the league issued a statement on Dec. 30 stating, “The League continues to have confidence in its COVID-19 protocols to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled, and these protocols continue to have the full backing of government.”

Of course, the Premier League’s exception has a precedent as well, since it escaped the previous lockdown back in November. Given that the average number of new daily cases of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom has more than doubled since then, however, it begs the question of whether the government and the English Football Association (FA) have been too hasty in making this decision.

After all, despite restrictions, guidelines, and cautions, the number of players and club staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 has climbed at a worrying rate. 58 positive cases surfaced in the two weeks leading up to Jan. 3 compared with 13 positives in the two weeks before that. From Jan. 4 to Jan. 10 alone, the Premier League reported 36 new positive cases out of 2,593 tests. These numbers have prompted several matches to be postponed, and teams like Manchester City have had nearly half their first team sidelined.

While the mounting number of COVID-19 cases in the Premier League may be concerning, it is ultimately unsurprising. After all, players have become notorious for breaching pandemic restrictions, with several members of the top flight hosting and attending parties throughout the Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Plus, clubs are engaging in international travel for the sake of training camps. Furthermore, neither the English FA nor the Premier League clubs are willing to take serious disciplinary action against players that breach COVID-19 restrictions, with both sides claiming they have no jurisdiction, which makes the direct consequences for breaking the guidelines seem inconsequential.

When the British government permitted the Premier League to continue despite a third national lockdown, officials cited that part of the reason was to preserve the joy and entertainment that elite sports bring to fans at home. Yet as the number of positive COVID-19 cases among the players and staff increase at an alarming rate, we must question whether this decision continues to be in the best interest of all those involved. Players choosing not to respect pandemic guidelines have already put their teammates and club staff at risk, and the absence of strict consequences seems to elevate their status to being above the restrictions (and therefore above the health and safety of others), while also setting a dangerous precedent for those not fully convinced by the gravity of the situation. Plus, with inconsistent fixtures, postponements, and first teams decimated by COVID-19, we must question the significance that each match, and perhaps even the league title itself, holds.

In his Jan. 11 COVID-19 briefing, Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated that over 2.6 million vaccine doses have been administered across the U.K. Even with the steady rollout of vaccinations, however, it seems unlikely that COVID-19 cases in the Premier League will slow down. For better or for worse, the only reliable way to effectively stifle the virus in England’s top flight is for all club members to respect the given guidelines or, if they are unable to do so, for the government to intervene and enact another suspension.