Don’t Stop People Going to the Football, Prime Minister

Boris is due to meet with Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty later today to discuss what additional Covid restrictions to impose, if any. We already know that he doesn’t want schools to close again and, according to today’s Times, weddings and funerals will also be exempt from any new rules. But what about large sporting events, like football matches? The new rules in Scotland mean that only 500 people can attend games and in Wales they’ll be played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future. Will the Prime Minister be tempted to follow suit?

I sincerely hope not. As I’ve said many times before, the thing I missed the most during the previous three lockdowns was not being able to go and see my beloved QPR. Since we were allowed back into football stadiums in August of last year I’ve tried to go to every single QPR game, home and away, and to date I’ve only missed four. Indeed, my son Charlie and I started a Substack newsletter about following QPR this season that you can find here. The thought of having to go back to watching games on an iPad again is beyond depressing.

So, Prime Minister, if Sir Patrick and the soon-to-be Sir Chris urge you to ban attendance at large sporting events, here is some evidence that you can point to suggesting that such a measure would be pointless:

  • Last year, Chris Whitty said: “The evidence is very clear that outdoor spaces are safer than indoors.”
  • A systematic review of five studies found that “a low proportion of reported global SARS-CoV-2 infections occurred outdoors (<10%)”.
  • A rapid review of 14 sources of evidence “found very few examples of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 in everyday life among c. 25,000 cases considered, suggesting a very low risk”.
  • An Italian study concluded that “the probability of airborne transmission due to respiratory aerosol is very low in outdoor conditions”.
  • Official figures in Ireland showed that, of the “232,164 cases of COVID-19 recorded in the state up to March 24th this year, 262 were as a result of outdoor transmission, representing 0.1% of the total”.
  • A paper by the PHE Transmission Group noted: “Evidence continues to suggest that the vast majority of transmission happens in indoor spaces; recent reviews considering data from several countries found very little evidence of outdoor transmission for SARS-CoV-2, influenza or other respiratory viruses.”
  • This study from early cases in China found only one outbreak (of two cases) out of a sample of 7,324 infections that could be traced to an outdoor setting.
  • The Cheltenham Festival on March 10th-13th of 2020, which drew crowds of around 250,000 people, has entered folklore as a “superspreader event”, but in fact the evidence that it led to a spike in infections in the locality is threadbare. As the Racing Post pointed out in April 2020, Gloucestershire was one of the parts of the U.K. least affected by Covid: “HSJ statistics for reported COVID-19 positive deaths in England per 100,000 people put Gloucestershire comfortably in the bottom half of a table headed by The Black Country and West Birmingham. … Gloucestershire actually has a lower number of confirmed COVID-19 cases than surrounding counties – the south west itself is very low and within that Gloucestershire is below average.”
  • 25,000 fans were admitted to the NFL Super Bowl in Florida on February 7th, at the height of America’s ‘second wave’, along with 12,000 staff. Even though only a third of fans had been vaccinated at the time, U.S. health officials only found three people who were infected as a result of attending the game.

God willing, Boris will stick to his guns and not impose any further restrictions, as the Daily Mail recommends in a strong leader this morning. But if you’re tempted to do something, Prime Minister, please leave football alone. Like all the other non-pharmaceutical interventions recommended by SAGE scientists, banning attendance at football games will make zero difference to Covid transmission.

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