Is it safe to have so many fans in stadiums at the Euros?

Is it safe to have so many fans in stadiums at the Euros?
England to face Denmark in Wembley semi-final on Wednesday with 60,000 fans in attendance but is a crowd that large too risky with Delta variant cases on the rise?

Why are we asking this now?

England are through to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 after making light work of Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night, meaning they will now face Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday evening.

The stadium will be three-quarters full, with 60,000 people in attendance, giving England a decided home advantage over the Danes at a tournament that has seen games played in cities across the continent, from Seville to St Petersburg and Baku, rather than have one dedicated host nation as is customary.

While that is great news for fans desperate to be there in person after a year of pandemic misery to cheer on Gareth Southgate’s men – now just two games from glory – the decision has attracted criticism in some quarters as a deeply unwise move, given that cases of the Delta variant of the coronavirus are continuing to rise around the UK and such large gatherings are likely to create the ideal conditions for encouraging transmission.

What are the current rules for attending games at Wembley?

The Euros are being used by the government’s Events Research Programme to trial mass spectator gatherings and monitor Covid-19 infection rates with a view to welcoming back other live events as society begins the complex business of returning to normal after lockdown.

Approximately 22,500 fans attended England’s first three group stage games at the tournament – around 25 per cent of Wembley’s capacity – but that was almost doubled for the Germany match and will be upped again to 60,000 for the Denmark clash, as well as at Tuesday night’s other semi between Italy and Spain, which is also being played at Wembley, as is the final on Sunday.

There’s currently a major scramble underway among England fans for tickets, with thousands likely to be left disappointed, but those spectators lucky enough to gain entry to the national stadium will still need to prove that they are fully-vaccinated (presenting the NHS app for confirmation), with both doses received at least 14 days before the game, or show proof of a negative lateral flow test taken within the previous 48 hours.

“We are thrilled that more fans will now be able to walk through the Wembley turnstiles and enjoy the finals of Euro 2020,” culture secretary Oliver Dowden has said of the decision to boost attendance.

“As we continue to make progress on our roadmap out of lockdown, keeping the public safe remains our top priority. We have worked extremely closely with UEFA and the FA to ensure rigorous and tight public health measures are in place whilst allowing more fans to see the action live.”

What criticism has there been?

Following England’s 2-0 second round victory over old rivals Germany, the latter’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer complained that it was “absolutely irresponsible” to have allowed 40,000 fans into Wembley.

“I think this UEFA position is absolutely irresponsible and commerce must not outshine the protection of the population against infection,” he said.

He also appealed to the tournament’s organiser “not to push this off on local health authorities” and said Europe’s governing body should say “we don’t want it this way and we’re reducing the numbers of spectators”.

While it might be tempting to laugh off Mr Seehofer’s remarks as sour grapes given his team’s defeat, to do so would be to ignore a legitimate public safety concern.

UEFA responded to his comments by saying it was “fully aligned” with local health authorities’ guidelines at every venue.

“The final decisions with regards to the number of fans attending matches and the entry requirements to any of the host countries and host stadiums fall under the responsibility of the competent local authorities, and UEFA strictly follows any such measures.”

Mr Seehofer has by no means been alone in expressing his concern, with the World Health Organisation’s senior emergency officer Kate Smallwood warning that: “In a context of increasing transmission, large mass gatherings can act as amplifiers.”

“We need to look at how people get there: Are they travelling in large, crowded convoys of buses?” she added. “Are they taking individual measures when they are doing that? And what’s happening after the games? Are they going into crowded bars and pubs?… If mixing happens among people who are not fully vaccinated, there will be cases.”

Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews who sits on the government’s own Sage sub-committee, has also sounded the alarm that games could become super-spreader events.

“By opening games to 60,000 fans without any mention of risk, they send a message to 60 million fans at home that the danger has gone away, that it is safe to embrace anyone whether during the game… or indeed at any time,” he said. “Will this year’s Euros be last year’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ – on steroids? The evidence is starting to emerge.”

Has there been any rise in cases that can be directly attributed to the Euros?

The most alarming development so far was the news that around 1,300 Scotland fans tested positive for Covid after travelling to London on 18 June for their team’s 0-0 draw with England, having descended on the capital against the advice of Public Health Scotland (PHS).

Of that total, only an estimated 397 had actually been at Wembley, but many more Scots made the trip to London without match tickets, congregating in Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square to belt out “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” and to celebrate their side’s return to tournament football after a 23-year hiatus in raucous fashion.

PHS analysis published last week revealed that 1,991 people who subsequently tested positive had attended one or more Euro 2020 events during their infection period, a moment when they “may have unknowingly transmitted their infection to others”.

Billy Gilmour, arguably Scotland’s star player on the night, also subsequently tested positive, forcing two England players – Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, his clubmates at Chelsea – to isolate and miss the side’s next match against the Czechs because they had spent time chatting with him at close quarters after the final whistle.

Is it coming home?

Covid? Let’s hope not. Precautions are in place and the rules for entry are strict but the moves to increase the number of supporters allowed to attend from 22,500 as recently as 22 June to 60,000 on Wednesday does certainly seem a little on the cavallier side.

As for Southgate’s Three Lions, well, the signs are extremely encouraging.

Harry Kane looked rejuvenated in Rome, scoring twice and coming close to completing his hattrick with a searing volley later on, and the rest of the team played with uncharacteristic verve and zest, controlling the game and looking deadly from set pieces once again.

Should they beat a very popular and capable Denmark side, playing for teammate Christian Eriksen who continues his recovery after suffering a heart attack in their opening match, England would go on to face either Roberto Mancini’s Italy or Luis Enrique’s Spain.

We know which we’d prefer.

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