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Premier League: Project Restart

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they have given to the Premier League about Project Restart.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer the House to my football interests as declared on the register.

My Lords, on 13 May the Government published guidance on GOV.UK allowing the phased return of sport and recreation, in line with the latest medical guidance. The guidance defines a set of recommended minimum practice for step 1 of return-to-training guidance for elite athletes. Public Health England has not produced specific advice on Project Restart but has engaged collaboratively in the working group and has cleared the step 1 guidance document. Ultimately, the decision to restart the Premier League is one not for government but for the Premier League and its member clubs.

My Lords, I am sure football fans would welcome the resumption of live games on TV, particularly if some are shown free-to-air on the BBC. But what will happen if a player or a member of a club’s coaching staff tests positive for Covid-19? Will the entire team be quarantined and thus unable to play any scheduled matches?

Given the desperate financial plight of many clubs in the English Football League and the levels below that, how will the Government ensure that the Secretary of State’s stated aim to

“ensure finances from the game’s resumption support the wider football family”

is achieved?

All the details on the impacts if either an athlete or a member of staff at a club were to fall ill with Covid are being worked out. A clear framework is being set up, with each club having a member of staff who is the responsible Covid-19 officer and a Covid-19 medical officer who will lead on any suspected or confirmed cases and make sure there is medical oversight for returning to work.

On funding for the wider leagues and clubs, the Government have been very clear that we expect any finances secured through the resumption of the professional game to benefit the wider football family.

My Lords, like the Minister, we all want to see the Premier League season complete, but not to the detriment of players, support staff and those involved at all levels of the game. Can the Minister comment further on that? Can she explain precisely what measures the Government intend to take to secure the financial security of not just the Premier League and Championship but the other leagues and, importantly, the women’s game through the WSL?

I will start with the last point first. I know that in all the work my ministerial colleagues, including the Secretary of State, have done, there has been a real focus on making sure that we do not lose momentum in the women’s game. That is very much front of mind.

On the development of the guidance, there are three levels. The step 1 guidance sets out the risk assessment mitigation plan; step 2 and step 3 guidance will be produced regarding close-contact training and games potentially being played behind closed doors. Through medical advice from government and Public Health England, we are supporting the football authorities as they take these decisions.

On funding, I have already mentioned that we see this as part of a wider football family and welcome the moves the Premier League has already made to advance money to the English Football League.

Will the Minister give us a little more guidance about the take-up of responsibility of existing projects that are run by Premier League clubs and indeed other elite-level clubs: that is, youth engagement, development of junior teams, and so on? Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will not take kindly to these being dumped as non-profit-making?

There is no intention of the Government seeing these dumped. However, certainly as regards football, it is the responsibility of the FA to oversee the grass-roots game. The Government have made major moves in support for businesses, and we have also seen important investment from Sport England at a community level. We are keeping a very close eye on this.

We are the biggest industry in the world in terms of football, and the Premier League is the world-leading league. Many clubs, particularly down the football pyramid, are on the cusp of economic disaster. Would the Minister agree that it would be economically prudent to allow the league to complete its season and keep the integrity of the football system that we have, and then we can deal with the problems of next season?

It is the Football Authority’s responsibility to agree and finalise the details and to decide with its member clubs whether they go forward. The Government are doing everything we can to support and provide advice, but it is ultimately the FA’s responsibility.

I declare my football interests as in the register. The Minister will know that, below the English Football League, hundreds of football clubs rely on unpaid officials and volunteers and are beginning to struggle financially in the light of the current crisis and the effect it is having on their income and future sponsorship. Did I hear the Minister say that she felt that the Premier League had already done enough regarding what it had given to the English Football League? I am talking about clubs below that. I would like to know how the Government intend to ensure that a meaningful percentage of the finances from the resumption of Premier League matches this season goes on support for the wider football family. I do not want to know that that is the Government’s intention; I want to know how they intend to ensure that that happens.

I echo what the noble Lord said in thanking local clubs very much for the work that they are currently doing in their local communities. The noble Lord is right that grass-roots football is an absolutely integral part of community life. I did not say that the Government felt that the moves the Premier League had made were enough but rather that we were encouraged by them and that we definitely see that financial relief for the upper levels of the game should be felt by the whole football family. We are working closely with all levels of the game to try to work this through in some detail.

My Lords, I was quite astounded to hear the Minister say at the beginning of her Answer that it would not be a decision by the Government—those were her actual words—on restarting the Premier League. Player interests appear to be almost incidental in whether the league starts or not. Is she aware that professional athletes, in particular soccer players, have a significantly different physiology from the general public and that their exposure to a lot of viruses can lead to conditions such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart with some life-threatening damage? What advice have the Government actually given through their professional advisers to professional footballers and in this decision-making so that we can have a safe return to soccer sometime in June, or perhaps July? Will she put that advice in the Library so that we can read what the scientists have said to the Government?

I will have to check for the noble Lord exactly what is publicly available. However, we have been working closely with the Chief Medical Officers for a range of sports, including elite football, and those medical officers have a deep understanding of the issues that individual athletes have. We are absolutely clear that competitive football can return behind closed doors only when it is safe to do so. If I gave any other impression, I apologise.

My Lords, I know that sport is devolved but international relations are reserved to the UK Government, so will they make representations to UEFA to investigate why the Scottish Premier League is not carrying out its clear instructions to complete the top-tier domestic competition? It is flouting what UEFA has recommended.

My understanding is that it is up to the Scottish Premier League to agree with its member clubs the way forward, taking into account the particular opportunities and challenges that they face.

My Lords, I am sorry about that last answer but the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. Thank you very much. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. The Virtual Proceedings will resume at noon for a Private Notice Question on mental health services during Covid, and proceedings are therefore now adjourned.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.