Sport teetering on the brink as Covid cases rise with threat of second wave
Salford Red Devils and Hull FC have their games called off Doubts over resumption of Women’s Champions League
Professional sport was warned it is on a knife-edge again after Covid-19 outbreaks in rugby league and women’s football fuelled fears that a host of competitions may be forced back into lockdown.
As evidence mounts of a second wave across Europe, the recently returned rugby Super League was plunged into turmoil after Hull FC and Salford Red Devils were told their matches had been postponed due to six positive tests after they played each other.
Rugby Football League officials, who borrowed £16million from the Government to help resume the sport, were last night scrambling to contain a crisis which sets off alarm bells for their rugby union counterparts when the Gallagher Premiership resumes tomorrow. In the last round of testing for the Premiership, four tested positive, including one player.
In football, preparations for the resumption of the Women’s Champions League were engulfed by uncertainty after a fresh round of testing showed five Atletico Madrid players had tested positive.
Uefa was said to be closely monitoring the situation for the tournament in Spain, which is facing the worst coronavirus infection rate in Western Europe – 1,418 in its latest daily count. The UK is not far behind, however, recording more than 1,000 cases in a day for the third time in the past week.
Matches are scheduled to resume in Bilbao and San Sebastian next Friday, despite experts expressing concern that Spain was at a “critical moment” after La Liga men’s clubs endured their biggest surge since the peak of the pandemic. Barcelona said an unnamed squad member tested positive yesterday after it emerged there had been six cases at Athletic Bilbao, two at Valencia and two at Atletico Madrid.
The new cases come a day after Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, warned that football matches could be shut down after Celtic and Aberdeen players breached rules that have led to both having two games called off.
Prof John Ashton, the former director of public health for the North West, says he expects more cases in sport like Celtic defender Boli Bolingoli, who returned to his club within 24 hours of flying back from Spain without self-isolating, and the eight Aberdeen players who visited a bar together.
“The biosecurity bubbles that we see in sport are only as strong as the weakest link,” he said. “No matter how robust, the arrangements are put in place by the sporting bodies, and the clubs themselves. It’s always going to be vulnerable to core behaviour by the players who are probably not so different from the communities that they’re drawn from.”
Ashton expressed concern over the fate of a host of domestic sports. Outside the mega-rich bubble of the Premier League, he said lesserfunded competitions will be particularly vulnerable to regional lockdowns as have already been seen in Manchester, Preston, Aberdeen, Kirklees and Bradford.
“I’m anticipating there’s going to be a lot more of this virus around and that will obviously affect sport,” he said. “This isn’t a question of a second wave as the first wave’s not going away in this country. We will see more very local lockdowns and that will inevitably disrupt play.”
The Premier League has managed to avoid any fresh postponements under its £4million testing regime, prompting calls for the Super League to double its screening schedule to twice a week.
The Super League had restarted on Aug 2, shortly after Toronto Wolfpack withdrew due to a financial crisis, but matches involving Hull and Salford Red Devils, scheduled for this weekend, have been postponed.
Ministers face a race to ensure enough testing is carried out at stadiums ahead of a proposed Oct 1 return for crowds after pilot schemes were cancelled at the snooker, cricket and horse racing a fortnight ago. A government update is expected this week.
Tough: Salford Red Devils (in red) and Hull FC played each other on Sunday, and have had fixtures postponed after a number of positive tests