Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden accepts the frustration at the “inconsistency” around allowing theatregoers into the London Palladium while sports fans remain barred from outdoor grounds.
There was widespread confusion and criticism that events at the London theatre, which included a talk by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, had been allowed to go ahead at a time when the Government had pressed pause on the return of spectators to sports venues from October 1 because of a rise in coronavirus infections.
Dowden appeared to suggest that the comparative volume of such events was one issue.
“I accept people’s frustration at the inconsistency there,” he told MPs at an evidence session of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee.
“We had sports on a path to return to normality, in fact sports were the first to get on the first stage in the return to normality, that is (elite) football behind closed doors.
“We were one of the first countries in the world to achieve it. At that time I was attacked by the arts for prioritising sports. The next stage was to have pilots to move to a point from October 1 where we would be able to have spectators in stadiums. That is what I desperately wanted to happen.
“Because of where we are with the disease and the rapidly-rising rate of infection it has not been possible to have that further easement. The very clear advice from the scientific community was that we should be imposing restrictions, which we are, not further easements.
“It is worth noting the difference in terms of the quantum between the two. If we had social distancing for sports that is a lot of people coming week in, week out going to sports stadiums up and down the country, it is an easement, that contrasts to socially-distanced indoor performances – people have noticed the Palladium – there are actually very few going on. It’s a different scale.”
Questions have also been raised about why socially distancing at an outdoor sports ground is off limits when pubs and other venues like shopping centres remain open.
He said: “It is worth noting it is not just in the stadium – it’s the journey to the stadium both on issues such as public transport, (and) people are likely to want something to eat or drink on the way, there is lots of other social contact.
“That’s not to say those things can’t be mitigated, they can be. But we have to accept that in permitting that to go ahead from October 1 we would have been having an easing in restriction, an increase in social interaction, which could have aided the spread of the disease at the same time as we were imposing lots of further restrictions.”
Dowden talked about three areas where improvement would need to be seen for spectators to return, although he was answering a question concerning indoor performing arts venues.
“One is a vaccine, and once we get to the point where that is sufficiently spread through the national community,” he said.
“The second is in relation to on-day testing, both the level of it and the confidence in it, and clearly there will be other priorities for that but we are confident of allocating that for the performing arts, and the third thing is the natural progression of the disease and the measures we’re taking to control it.”
The Government is working with sports to identify funding support that they need given the loss in spectator revenue, with the Premier League asked to support the EFL.
Dowden confirmed that an initial £10million would go to clubs in the National League, the competition directly below the EFL.