Minister for Sport Nigel Huddleston has stated that it is the Government’s intention to see fans return to football stadiums “as soon as possible”.
However, at a debate attended by ministers at Westminster Hall on Monday, Huddleston laid out no timeline for pilot events to resume or a date for a lifting of restrictions.
Pressure is growing on the Government to allow supporters to return to football stadiums after coronavirus lockdown restrictions lift on December 2.
Ministers debated the issue of supporters returning to grounds at all levels – which was intended to happen in October before Covid-19 cases began to rise once more – after a petition backed by the Premier League and Football League garnered nearly 200,000 signatures.
Jonathan Gullis, the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, called the debate and stated: “As of December 2 I will be expecting to see an announcement that fans are coming back into football stadiums.”
Huddleston replied that the Government are working “tirelessly” to try to achieve that but while conceding that transmission rates were low inside grounds due to them being open air, he said there remained issues around fans arriving at and gathering around stadia.
“I am fully aware of the importance of getting fans back in stadia, not just for football but for all elite sports,” said Huddleston.
“The point made by several members today that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate, and we are paying attention to what is happening in other countries.
“The Government does understand the financial implications of not allowing fans back into stadia from October 1 and we have worked tirelessly to get sports back up and running over the past few months, albeit behind closed doors.
“Pilots were pivotal and have been very successful, they have been excellent learning points and learning opportunities. And that work has not been wasted as it is helping inform the decision-making process and we want to get pilots back and get fans back in stadia as soon as possible.
“We have had a plan from very, very early on in the first lockdown and it has been explicitly stated and is out there, but what we have had to do on a couple of occasions, unfortunately, is press the pause button. But we want to get back to the plan as quickly as we can.
“A big challenge we are facing, however, is how spectators travel to and from venues and how that might impact on transmission rates.
“But we are committed to getting spectators back as soon as possible and we are working with the STIG (Sports Technology Innovation Group) group to analyse new technologies which might support the return of spectators.”
Huddleston added that, when it came to financial support at the elite level, “football should be expected to look after itself”.
However, the former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins MP, said that the Government “did not ask Netflix to bail out the arts”.
Huddleston said: “(Julian Knight, MP for Solihull) said he believed it would be absurd for taxpayers money to be used to bail out or support elite football. I have to say I largely agree with him,” said Huddleston.
“It is absolutely vital, and I have said this from the beginning, that football should look after itself – we mean at the elite levels.
“The honourable member said there is enough money in football but it is poorly distributed. I’m afraid we are seeing that at this moment in time.
“The idea that we should be using public money, our constituents’ money, to bail them out is just not acceptable. I appeal to them to come to a compromise as soon as possible.
“I appeal to the EFL and Premier League to continue the very important conversations they are having.”
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