Epidemiologist says halting football before gatherings ban may have saved lives

The decision to suspend professional football in England before the Government formally banned mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic was a potential lifesaver, according to an epidemiologist.

The Government has been criticised for allowing the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid Champions League match to go ahead in the week beginning March 9.

The English professional game took the decision to suspend competition on March 13 ahead of a round of matches that weekend, but that decision was made following positive tests for Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta and Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, rather than following Government advice, which only changed the following Monday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson said emergency workers would no longer support such events.

The decision to suspend meant 45 matches due to be played in the Premier League and EFL that weekend did not take place, and Dr Rowland Kao from the University of Edinburgh says that was potentially a very significant and important call.

Asked whether there would have been a negative impact of those matches going ahead, Dr Kao told the PA news agency: “There’s a good chance, yes. There’s no guarantee with the number of infected people in the country at that time that somebody (with the infection) would have been there. But if someone had been there and been infectious, there was a potential for very large amounts of spread.

“The problem you have in making that comparison is there’s no counterfactual. The people who got infected may have got infected anyway. But broadly speaking, the more things we would have done of that nature (banning mass gatherings), the better off we would be likely to have been.

“That figure that is mentioned of two-and-a-half to three people roughly infected by one person (prior to lockdown), those are under normal circumstances with normal amounts of contact.

“It’s not entirely clear what happens when you change the contact to something where you have mass gatherings. Those gatherings are an opportunity for viruses to transmit in a more comprehensive way.

“It seems to be that direct transmission is important (for the spread of coronavirus) – infectious people coughing spray out an amount of virus over an area.

“Now the number of people you could infect depends on the number of people you come into contact with. So for a normal person on my street it might be one, maybe two people at most, but if you’re sitting in a crowd for two hours imagine all the people around you that you could infect.”

Dr Kao also envisages that the return of supporters to sporting events could be reliant on the development of an effective vaccine. It is impossible to predict when such a vaccine will be developed, but even optimistic estimates say it could be as long as 18 months.

Scotland's First Minister does not envisage mass gatherings taking place any time soon
Scotland’s First Minister does not envisage mass gatherings taking place any time soon (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

“Whatever we have it would have to be something that would stop an epidemic in its tracks, where we wouldn’t have to go to the extent of the kind of social distancing we’re having now,” he said.

“There are very few things that can do that. A vaccine is one of the most important ones. It would have to be a pretty good vaccine as well.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday: “I would absolutely say that people should not be under the expectation that large-scale mass gatherings will be starting any time soon.

“Because we must make sure we do everything we can to suppress this virus and, as we start to lift restrictions, make sure we’ve got the capability in place through ‘test, trace, isolate’ to replace those restrictions but also continue to have the understanding that some form of social-distancing is going to be required perhaps up to the point where a vaccine is available.”

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