Skip to main content

Spectator Sports: Covid-19

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906488)

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906491)

What steps his Department is taking to support the return of spectators at live sports events during the covid-19 outbreak. (906494)

The Government fully understand that fans want to be back watching live sport—so do all of us—and we continue to work with the sector on solutions and innovations. Having spectators at some sporting events is still possible, but, as set out in our road map, sporting event pilots and the full return of fans to stadiums will only take place when it is safe to do so. The Government took the decision to pause test events and the other expansions planned for 1 October because of the sharp upward trajectory of covid-19 cases. We recognise that this news will be disappointing to many fans and to sport, but we have had to make difficult decisions that give us the best chance of containing the virus this winter.

Football’s coming home—or so we thought. While it is extremely heartening to see the return of cricket, rugby, football and other sporting fixtures to our national life, such as Bury AFC, Prestwich Heys FC and Radcliffe FC in my constituency, we must also be mindful of the rate of infection. Can my hon. Friend provide an update on the plan to continue reopening these activities, given the risks posed by covid?

I know that my hon. Friend is a huge sports fan; we have spoken about the sector on many occasions. I agree that it has been fantastic to see so many sports return at both professional and grassroots level, and I pay tribute to the work that sporting bodies have done with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make that possible. Sport is hugely important to the nation’s physical and mental wellbeing, and although yesterday’s announcements mean that adult indoor team sport cannot take place from tomorrow, organised outdoor team sport, outdoor and indoor exercise classes and outdoor licensed physical activity are still exempt from the rule of six and can continue to take place in larger numbers. As the chief medical officer, chief scientific adviser and others have advised, covid cases are on a sharp upward trajectory, and we are introducing measures to attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Match day revenue and getting people through the turnstiles is vital to clubs like Accrington Stanley in my area, which has worked tirelessly towards bringing fans back safely. As the Minister can imagine, the announcement was a devastating blow to clubs like mine. Can he assure me that he is working towards a road map to bring fans back safely, and that further financial support is being considered for local clubs?

My hon. Friend is right that football clubs at all levels are the bedrock of our local communities. We have seen that during coronavirus more than ever. I spoke to the Football Supporters’ Association yesterday and reiterated our thanks. Of course, grassroots football will continue, and, as she may know, non-elite football is covered by the recreational team sport framework guidance, which does permit spectators. The Football Association’s definition of non-elite football means that leagues below national leagues north and south level 6 can continue with spectators. We will continue to work closely with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and sporting bodies to support the safe return of spectators to stadiums more widely when the public health situation allows. I can confirm that we are in discussions with football governing bodies about further support measures.

As its honorary vice-president, I know that, like other non-league clubs, Havant and Waterlooville Football Club relies on match-day income for its financial sustainability. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to allow non-league football fans safely back into stadiums as soon as possible, and what action is there to help them financially in the meantime?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this area. In the many conversations we have had about football and other sports, he has shown that he is a great advocate not only for sport, but indeed for Havant and his constituents. As I have said previously, spectators are allowed at non-elite football events, but the Football Association’s definition of “elite” extends to the national league south, in which my hon. Friend’s club competes, and therefore does not allow for fans at the moment. We understand that the restrictions that have been put in place will cause financial difficulties for clubs, as they rely so much on match-day income. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I truly understand the seriousness of this, and we are working closely with sporting bodies to see how we can support them further.

The Government’s failures on track and trace have consequences for football clubs, as we have heard from Conservative Members of Parliament this morning. We all want to know what the plan is to save the game we love. Suppose that, as has been indicated in the media, the premier league is not prepared to underwrite the rest of football, who then will be to blame when clubs collapse? Will it be the premier league, or will it be Conservative Ministers, speaking from this Dispatch Box?

I share the hon. Member’s passion for sport and football, and I recognise and acknowledge the Opposition’s support for the measures that we announced this week. I can assure her that we are having detailed conversations with representatives of sport, including football. We appreciate that this latest announcement will have economic consequences for sport, and we had been hoping for the return of spectators that bring in so much income. Where they can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways in which sport can support itself with the Government focusing on those most in need.

I thank the Minister for his engagement on this issue and for his commitment and hard work. Obviously, the progress of this virus is a body blow to sectors facing what is in no small terms a potential extinction event. Does he agree with my Committee, which said in its letter to the Secretary of State early today that lessons can be learned from this aborted attempt to reopen sport and live entertainment, such as the issuing of a “no earlier than” date with three months’ notice, better, wider testing, and funds specifically targeted at allowing adaptations to be made for safer reopening?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and very much appreciate the work that he and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee have done. I would be more than happy to discuss his proposals further, and thank him for his involvement so far. I wish that I could stand here and give definitive timescales for what we will be able to do, but, as we live in such uncertain times, I am unable to do so. I can assure him that we will endeavour to give as much guidance and notice as possible, and I look forward to working with him further.