Oliver Dowden to be quizzed on the return of fans as frustration grows

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is set to be asked about the return of spectators to sports venues when he appears before MPs next week, the PA news agency understands.

Dowden is set to face questions from MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee on October 14 about the continued impact of coronavirus on sport and the arts.

The Government scrapped plans for spectators to come back on a socially-distanced basis from October 1 due to a rise in the number of new coronavirus cases nationally, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying at the time that the restrictions could stay in place for six months.

That decision has been heavily criticised by clubs and governing bodies, with many pointing to the inconsistency of continuing to allow people to gather in unregulated spaces like pubs and shopping centres but not permitting entry to sports venues.

Dowden’s department has put together the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG) to look at ways in which technology can be harnessed to allow spectators to return safely.

However, DCMS has been criticised for a lack of engagement with technology firms prior to the establishment of STIG.

The firm which used tracking technology at the Surrey v Hampshire T20 pilot event last month, Restrata, said they had received no contact from Government afterwards.

Fans attended the Surrey v Hampshire match last month on a socially-distanced basis
Fans attended the Surrey v Hampshire match last month on a socially-distanced basis

The Premier League, EFL and the Football Association joined forces earlier this week to call on Government to provide some “clarity” and a petition calling for the return of fans has comfortably passed the 100,000 signatures threshold to trigger a debate in parliament.

The block on fans returning has heightened the financial pressure on sports clubs and governing bodies, many of whom are heavily reliant on revenue generated by match-going spectators.

The EFL has been especially hard hit, but the Government has called on the Premier League to come up with a rescue package to help clubs at that level avoid going out of business.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters told The Times on Thursday: “There’s a frustration that there is that inconsistency and we would urge the Government to treat sport in the same way as the entertainment industry.

Following the open letter to supporters, fans can show their support for the safe return of supporters to football stadiums by signing this petitionhttps://t.co/G4G3sG7Esy

— Premier League (@premierleague) October 7, 2020

“The clubs feel they have been hit with a quadruple whammy — firstly that the optimism of October 1 has been taken away; secondly that there will be a sports bailout but that it wouldn’t include football; thirdly that the Premier League will be expected to secure the future of the EFL while dealing with the implications of having no fans until possibly March; finally the opening up of entertainment arenas within sometimes a couple of miles of football grounds without any road map for the return of football supporters.”

Clubs in the EFL are growing increasingly frustrated by the stand-off, and feel that the Government should not leave it solely to the Premier League to put together a rescue package.

Portsmouth chief executive Mark Catlin told the PA news agency on Wednesday: “The Premier League and the Government need to stop acting in a Punch and Judy fashion with each other over helping out clubs in the lower tiers.

“Do I think the Premier League should be a part of this (rescue package)? One hundred per cent yes. But do I think the Government should get off scot-free? No.”

The Government has already offered assurances of financial support to the National League, the competition immediately below the EFL in the football pyramid.

It has yet to announce any other rescue packages for other sports.