The Football Association will push for fans to be allowed at the FA Cup final despite it being scheduled two days before fans are able to return, on May 15, and for Wembley to be at a quarter capacity for the clash between England and Scotland on June 18.
The fourth and final step of the Government recovery plan aims for the lifting of all restrictions on sports and entertainment events from June 21 at the earliest, “using enhanced testing approaches and other measures” which are to be trialled at pilot events starting from April.
Whitehall sources expressed “extreme caution” over the likelihood of full stadiums in late June, but recognised there was an ambition to scale up numbers rapidly.
The plan, announced in the House of Commons, also sees grass-roots sport released fully from its shackles by May 17. As trailed on Monday, school sports return on March 8 and all organised outdoor grassroots will be back from March 29.
The Government has now added that gyms can reopen on April 12, with organised indoor sports – such as squash and badminton – returning by May 17, as the rule of six is reintroduced.
Monday’s announcement sees the return of fans in time to see this season’s Premier League winners receive their trophy, and is the beginning of the end of strangleholds that have caused billions of pounds worth of damage to sport.
The Telegraph disclosed two weeks ago how the Prime Minister was plotting getting crowds back in time for the European Championship as well as Wimbledon.
On Monday night, the Football Association said it was “absolutely delighted” by the announcement, but the Premier League said it will seek the opinion of clubs before formally reacting to the plans.
It has been suggested relegation-threatened Newcastle, away to fellow strugglers Fulham on the last day, may have “integrity” issues with having home fans only back for the potentially crucial relegation clash. The club declined to comment.
The best-case scenario for scaling up numbers at the end of June is in line with insiders detailing how Mr Johnson had earmarked the Euros and Wimbledon as “crown jewels” of the summer.
England play Czech Republic in the last group game at Wembley a day after the Government hopes to start releasing “all legal limits on social contact” in the plan.
The semi-finals and the final of Euro 2020 are due to be played at Wembley on July 6, 7 and 11, while Wimbledon gets under way on June 28.
Following Mr Johnson’s announcement, an FA spokesman said: “We are absolutely delighted and look forward to full stadiums as soon as possible.”
The Football League, meanwhile, indicated its hope that both the Carabao Cup final on April 25 and the final round of regular season matches on May 8 and 9 could form part of the pilot programme, and said it hoped “as many fans as possible” could attend the divisional play-off finals at the end of May.
Manchester City, the current runaway leaders, could now be in line to lift the Premier League trophy in front of a home crowd against Everton on May 23. The decision is an even bigger boost for rugby union, with crowds returning to the Gallagher Premiership for the three remaining rounds of matches.
The FA Cup Final on May 15 appears all-but-certain to be declared a test event as, under health and safety restrictions, the FA needs to ensure 10,000 people have tested new steps built to replace the ramp on Wembley Way.
The Telegraph understands the test cannot take place for England’s two friendlies in June as the stadium will have already been handed over to Uefa in preparation for the tournament.
Prospects of the home unions staging the Lions tour against South Africa also take a step closer on Monday as a result of the announcement. Keeping the tour in South Africa, where it will almost certainly be played behind closed doors, remains the default option, but there are increasing concerns about the effects of the South African Covid-19 strain which may be resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The Government has vowed to offer all Britons over 50 and all adults with underlying health conditions a first dose of Covid vaccine by the spring. Scientists predict the mortality rate of the virus will fall by 99 per cent once these groups have been vaccinated. Rapid testing and potential proof of vaccination will play a central part in Government assessing whether they can increase crowd numbers in June and beyond.
“The Government will bring the findings from across different sectors and different settings to determine a consistent approach to lifting restrictions on these events,” the roadmap says. “Depending on the outcome of this work, the Government hopes to be able to lift restrictions on these events and sectors as part of Step 4.”
On Monday night the All England Club confirmed it was preparing for all eventualities on crowd numbers following the Government announcement. “We remain focused on developing our plans within the scenarios of full, reduced and no public capacity so that we can remain as agile and flexible as possible to the Government and public health situation,” a statement added.
The announcement is a major boost for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup being held in England in Oct, which is now likely to have full capacities throughout.
Sport-by-sport guide to the return of fans
Football authorities were thrilled at the news regarding the return of crowds, with the sport almost certain to be the first industry to welcome a five-figure crowd for the first time since March last year. That could be as soon as April, with the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown confirming a series of pilots that month, including reduced social distancing. The April 25 Carabao Cup final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur would appear a major candidate for such a pilot – and the English Football League are pushing for that to happen – but would need ministers to agree to allow fans outside London to travel to Wembley.
That could be preceded by pilots at Premier League matches which home fans only would be allowed to attend. Those pilots could begin at four-figure levels before being quickly scaled up ahead of the FA Cup final and a formal May 17 return of fans at a cap of 10,000 across the board – just in time for the end of the Premier League season. The European Championship would then see another major scaling up to at least 24,000 fans by the time England play Scotland on June 18, three days before all restrictions are due to end. The rest of the Euro 2020 games at Wembley could then witness the biggest crowds of all but whether it is full to capacity remains to be seen.
The announcement that capacity crowds could, in theory, return from June 21 seems to perfectly coincide with the Lions tour which is due to start five days later at Murrayfield against Japan. The question now will be whether the Lions abandon the historical traditions of touring by remaining in the United Kingdom, a prospect which was understood to be looking increasingly attractive to key figures on Monday night. If – and it remains a big if – you could accommodate 80,000 at Twickenham, the Principality Stadium and Murrayfield then hosting the Lions series becomes a lot more financially viable. Leaving South Africa will mean forfeiting a lot of sponsorship money, however it is virtually guaranteed that there will be no crowds permitted for the tour which may be grimly confined to hotel rooms and stadiums.
Concerns around the South African variant of Covid-19 and the biosecurity the hosts can provide have also been growing. Hence the recent attraction of taking the tour to Australia but that has the problem of timezones and quarantine which would be solved by a home series (at least for the Lions). Australia, however, has shown that it can stage large-scale sporting events while the British Government has only produced a roadmap. There is still an awful lot of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Premiership clubs should be allowed three sets of regular season games with fans at 25 per cent capacity while 80,000 could, in theory, attend the showpiece final at Twickenham, which is on June 26.
The All England Club is as cautious and watchful a body as you will find. So it was entirely in keeping that, while the club on Monday spoke of an “ambition to welcome spectators safely to our events this summer”, it also insisted that all three scenarios remain on the table: full capacity, reduced capacity and no fans at all.
Disappointed ticket-holders from last year’s Wimbledon cancellation will be hoping for clarity. Although they all had their money refunded, following the AELTC’s invocation of its pandemic insurance, they have also been given the opportunity to purchase the same tickets again as soon as they become available. The uncertainty is likely to continue until April at the earliest, according to Club sources, while the various options are considered.
As for the Lawn Tennis Association, their summer calendar will now be rolled out in relatively standard fashion. If events are still limited to 25 per cent capacity by mid-to-late June, that will be unfortunate for the profitable tournament at Queen’s Club – now renamed the cinch Championships after its new sponsor – and for the increasingly impressive Eastbourne International.
But the Birmingham Classic, which coincides with Queen’s, tends not to be well attended at the best of times, despite attracting top players such as Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka – now ranked No 1 and No 2 in the world after Osaka’s Australian Open victory on Saturday – when it was last staged in 2019.
The R&A still does not believe the 149th Open at Royal St George links in July will feel like “normal’ and regardless of any mashie-rattling in Westminster, “caution” will remain to be the byword for the governing body. In truth, St Andrews HQ has been working on getting as many possible on to the ground at the Sandwich and because of the unique amounts of space on a golf course, the Tournament Committee has been looking at a crowd in the 10s of thousands.
But whether we will witness huge grandstands and tented villages containing vast and opulent hospitality remains a moot point. There is a three-month lead up in terms of infrastructure and it would be easier and perhaps more responsible to keep the “indoor” action to a minimum. It is known that a few sponsors have already expressed their concerns with a “business as usual” approach and that is not the R&A’s style anyway.
A daily gallery of up to 20,000, with movement restrictions around the links, seems the most likely scenario at this point.
It will be intriguing to see how far the European Tour is prepared to go with the BMW PGA Championship in September. That would appear to offer a far greater chance of normality. The Ladies European Tour is staging an event in London in July and will be looking to attract a sizeable audience, while the Women’s British Open is at Carnoustie and will fall under Scottish guidelines.
Racing hailed Monday’s announcement as ‘encouraging’, even if it will come too late for the Cheltenham Festival, Aintree’s Grand National meeting and the Guineas meeting at Newmarket – although there could be a limited crowd back at Epsom for the Derby and Royal Ascot in June.
Royal Ascot finishes on May 15th – two days before Phase Three of the Government’s roadmap – but the sport is considering how to scale up after that.
David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, said on Monday night. “As always there’s a lot of detail to be worked through and it will probably be a week or two before we know what we can do and about possible pilot events. It’s more encouraging than I thought it would be. I didn’t expect to get that much good news in it. There’s not much for us in phase one and two but the third and fourth phases are more interesting. I thought it was quite telling there was no talk of tiers this time.”
England’s first two Tests against New Zealand from June 2 at Lord’s and Edgbaston fall before the Prime Minister hopes full crowds will be able to return on June 21 but the ECB is now increasingly confident it will host full houses for the main series of the summer against India which starts on Aug 4 and white-ball games in July against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Surrey have already sold out the first four days of the India Test at the Kia Oval in September.
Tickets for international and county Blast matches have been on sale for months with clubs working on the basis of 100 per cent capacity but with contingency plans to hold a ballot if Covid restrictions make that impossible. Those who bought tickets and were then told in a ballot they no longer had a seat would be offered a full refund or rollover their purchase for 12 months.
Tickets for the Hundred go on sale in April, having been held back until a roadmap was announced.
Surrey host Essex on June 21 in a Blast match which could be the first sporting event played to full capacity. If so that will be worth £3m in revenue for the club.
The seventh rounds of the county championship matches from May 20 will be able to welcome crowds and all should easily come under the 10,000 threshold.