Outdoor Sports Events Should Be Open to All, Including the Unvaccinated

Last week, the UK’s sports bodies wrote a joint letter to the leaders of the main political parties. It warned that the return of some spectators from May 17th will be “insufficient to end sport’s Covid financial crisis” because attendance will be capped at 25% of capacity in larger venues.

“Looking ahead to June 21,” the letter went on, “we support the Government’s ambition to secure the full return of fans, without restrictions if possible.” However, it also said, “All of our sports can see the benefit that a Covid certification process offers in getting more fans safely back to their sport as quickly as possible.”

In other words: the sports bodies want to get fans back into bleachers as soon as possible, preferably without restrictions, but if using vaccine passports is what it takes, then so be it.

However, my reading of the evidence is that vaccine passports would provide little benefit at outdoor sports events (which I assume covers most such events). And given objections that have been raised on grounds of privacy and non-discrimination, mandating them for all sports events seems like a very unwise idea.

To begin with, the percentage of people with COVID-19 antibodies is now well above 50% in England and Wales, as this chart from the ONS indicates:

The percentage will be even higher by May 17th, when spectators can finally return to stadiums. And it will be higher still when the next football season begins in August. Due to the seasonality of COVID-19, transmission is likely to be low over the summer, so by the time restrictions might be needed in September, a very large percentage of people will have some form of immunity.

What’s more, evidence suggests that the vast majority of infections occur indoors. This is because wind quickly disperses the virus in outdoor environments, and viral particles degrade more quickly when exposed to sunlight.

In Ireland, only 0.1% of infections could be traced to outdoor activities (though this doesn’t include all the associated indoor activities, such as travel to and from events). And despite England’s packed beaches last summer, the epidemiologist (and SAGE member) Mark Woolhouse told MPs there were “no outbreaks” linked to beaches.

A systematic review of five studies published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that less than 10% of infections occurred outdoors. And a recent study published in Environmental Research concluded that “the probability of airborne transmission due to respiratory aerosol is very low in outdoor conditions”.

Chris Whitty has said, “The evidence is very clear that outdoor spaces are safer than indoors.” And a paper by the PHE Transmission group notes, “Evidence continues to suggest that the vast majority of transmission happens in indoor spaces.”

Before the UK’s hugely successful vaccine rollout, the risk of outdoor transmission was low. By the time sports venues re-open on May 17th, the risk will be even lower. While there are some circumstances where Covid certification makes sense (like visiting relatives in care homes), attending outdoor sports events is not one of them. Instead of spending more time checking fans at the entrance, venues would be better off improving ventilation in high-risk spaces.

It’s time to get fans back into stadiums – but they should only have to show a ticket on their way in.

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