The Government has been accused of mixed messaging over plans to allow more than 60,000 fans into Wembley Stadium for the European Championship at the same time as lockdown restrictions continue for the public.
Culture minister John Whittingdale defended the Government’s decision to allow crowds to attend Wembley for the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final, in the largest gatherings at a sporting event for the last 15 months.
The matches are part of the Government’s Event Research Programme on holding mass events safely, but ministers have so far declined to publish findings from the review.
All ticket-holders for the games at Wembley will need to show evidence of a negative Covid-19 test or proof of two doses of a vaccine.
Mr Whittingdale told BBC Breakfast “now is the right time” to test bigger events and said the Government was still in discussions with Uefa over allowing VIPs such as officials, politicians and sponsors to come to the UK without having to quarantine.
But Professor Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) subcommittee on behavioural science, suggested the messaging from ministers would not sit well with the public.
Asked how people would feel about 60,000 gathering for a football match when amateur choirs are not allowed to sing, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that data suggests younger men are gathering at home for matches with friends and forgetting restrictions.
“But the point is that 60,000 people at the match sends a message to 60 million, which is ‘well if they can all meet together, why can’t we? If they’re rammed together and leaping up and down and hugging each other when a goal is scored, why shouldn’t we?’,” Prof Reicher said.
He added: “The most potent form of messaging, in fact, are the policies we put forward and we’ve got to think of those policies, not only in terms of what they do practically, but the types of messages they send and the ways in which they change behaviour.
“If we live in a society which tells us ‘well, it’s fine for 60,000 people to meet at Wembley’, it’s very hard at the same time to say to people, ‘look, there’s still a pandemic out there, and we’ve still got to be careful’.”
Earlier, Mr Whittingdale said the large-scale events trialled so far “have shown very successful results and we’ll be publishing the analysis of that quite soon” – and before the final easing of restrictions in England.
He said the data would enable the Government to “decide whether or not it is safe to apply those relaxed restrictions across the economy and more widely”.
The minister added that any officials coming to the UK will remain subject to restrictions, adding: “They won’t necessarily be allowed to just travel around the country.
“At every stage we will be taking advice from Public Health England and we will only reach an agreement if we are absolutely confident that it doesn’t put the public health at risk.”
Meanwhile, Dr David Nabarro, from the World Health Organisation, told Sky News “there are multiple sides” to arguments over whether crowds should be gathering at Wembley.
“If I’m talking to you just as a public health doctor, I’m going to have to say that there are real questions to be asked because there is rising incidence in the UK, and we really do know that when you mingle people together you’re more likely to get spread,” he said.
“But as a citizen, I’m also thinking that it’s time for us all to start to work out how we’re going to get on with our lives, even though there’s viruses in our midst. And we can’t just stop doing everything because we’re scared.”
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said allowing 60,000 fans to gather “with all the pinch points around transport, entering and exiting the venue, and inevitable opportunities for the virus to spread in enclosed spaces like lavatories is a recipe for disaster”.
He added: “This is all a bit worrying and confusing. We still have significant personal restrictions in place in relation to social distancing, the size of outdoor and indoor gatherings and the wearing of face masks.”
It comes as some people took to social media, including Twitter, to express fury that events were going ahead when school sports days have been cancelled and children who are at very low risk of Covid-19 are still being sent home.
TV doctor Dr Rosemary Leonard told BBC Breakfast it was “ridiculous” that whole classes – and even year groups – are being sent home to self-isolate when one child tests positive for Covid.
She said it was unfair on children, adding: “It’s not prioritising them or their education.
“It’s as if nobody is caring… and looking at this in a balanced way.
“We’ve got to stop being scared… unnecessarily, disproportionately scared of Covid.”
Elsewhere, Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and a member of Sage, said the current data on deaths and hospital cases was encouraging, adding that the virus was currently concentrated in unvaccinated groups, including children.
He said that “whilst, yes, it’s highly disruptive to schools and to pupils to be off school for a period, what we’re seeing is that those measures are proving relatively effective at stopping very large explosive school outbreaks in those circumstances.
“So unfortunately, that picture will continue for a few weeks more until we get past the third wave which will unfold in the next couple of months”.
Brendan Wren, professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there was “a certain amount of coronamania going on” and accused the Government of being “overcautious”.
Asked if it would be possible for the end of social restrictions to occur sooner than July 19, he told Sky News: “I think it could be possible.
“I think the Government has been a bit overcautious, there’s a certain amount of coronamania going on and we do need to take a wider view of society as a whole, and a wider view of the fact that excess deaths for the past few months are less than in previous years because, for example, many other infectious diseases are far lower now.”