The Premier League is resisting calls to suspend all matches this weekend despite a raft of Covid-related postponements in the last 48 hours.
Manchester United’s match against Brighton on Saturday is the latest to have been called off due to the number of Covid-19 cases in the Red Devils camp, with Thursday’s game between Leicester and Tottenham also postponed.
The number of postponed weekend matches across England’s top four divisions reached double figures by 3pm on Thursday, with the EFL announcing stricter Covid protocols including increased testing.
United are understood to have had only nine players available because of Covid and other injuries for Tuesday’s game against Brentford, which was called off late on Monday night, and just seven for the Saturday lunchtime match against Brighton at Old Trafford.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank called for all of the weekend’s top-flight matches to be postponed, with the highly-transmissible Omicron variant wreaking havoc with the schedule, but the league is currently intending to play as many games as possible.
In confirming the postponement of a second Manchester United match, the league said in a statement: “It is with regret that this is the fourth Premier League fixture to have been postponed in the past week.
“While recognising a number of clubs are experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks, it is the league’s intention to continue its current fixture schedule where safely possible. The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority.”
— EFL Communications (@EFL_Comms) December 16, 2021
Following a run of games being called off, the EFL announced on Thursday afternoon it had moved to implement a regime of “enhanced training ground protocols” which include increased testing and also provided updated guidance on the minimum number of available players that are required to fulfil a fixture.
All clubs must now establish the red protocols for first team-training settings, which means players and staff must take a lateral flow test on the day before a game, while social distancing measures will be required outside of physical sessions, along with restrictions to the use of indoor facilities, manual therapy and group travel.
Any person who returns a positive lateral flow test will then be required to take a PCR test and isolate, in line with Government guidance.
The EFL said weekly aggregate reports on the number of tests undertaken and the number of positive results will not be provided, but it will confirm the circumstances where the results lead to a postponement of a fixture.
Clubs will be expected to play where there are 14 players, including a goalkeeper, available from the registered squad list. Under-21 players who are not on the squad list, but have played one league match, or any other contracted player not on the squad list “but otherwise would have been eligible to play” will also be included in the considerations.
The EFL said it is encouraging all eligible players and staff to get fully vaccinated and also book a booster jab to “help protect colleagues and minimise the risk of fixtures being postponed”.
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— Bolton Wanderers (@OfficialBWFC) December 16, 2021
As of November’s data, 75 per cent of players across the EFL had been either fully vaccinated, had a single jab or intend to be vaccinated. The total of double-vaccinated players was 59 per cent, with 16 per cent set to get the jab and 25 per cent of players not currently intending to get a vaccine.
The EFL’s medical advisor Dr Richard Higgins said: “Further to enhanced medical guidance recently issued, in response to a growing number of Covid-19 cases and subsequent fixtures postponements in recent days, the EFL has opted to strengthen its protocols for all clubs to help minimise the health risks to individuals while seeking to mitigate against the threat of further fixture postponements in the weeks ahead.
“Alongside enhanced protocols which includes mandatory testing ahead of matchdays, the EFL continues to strongly encourage players and staff at clubs to get fully vaccinated and obtain a booster jab if eligible to do so.
“We know that getting double-jabbed and boosted now will reduce the risk of getting seriously ill or dying from Covid-19, reduce the risk of catching or spreading Covid-19 amongst team-mates and loved ones, while helping protect against Covid-19 variants including Omicron.”