Two major sporting events in March “caused increased suffering and death,” said the scientist responsible for the UK’s largest Covid-19 follow-up project.
Data from millions of volunteers found coronavirus “hot spots” shortly after the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool Champions League match against Atletico Madrid.
Professor Tim Spector said that case rates locally “have multiplied by many”.
The government has stated that many factors could influence cases in a particular area.
Less than three months ago, sport across the UK was continuing normally, despite the imminent threat from the coronavirus – which had already prompted some European countries to organize such events without spectators, or to cancel them altogether.
Sports governing bodies in the UK were inspired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who said in early March that people should “do their business as usual as much as possible”.
The first weekend in March, there was a full football program in England and Scotland, five horse racing meetings and Six Nations rugby at Twickenham between England and Wales – to which the Prime Minister himself attended.
It was another matter elsewhere. A forthcoming Six Nations match in Dublin had already been postponed, as well as the Chinese Grand Prix and football matches in northern Italy, infected with the virus.
The position of the British government has remained consistent. Just 24 hours before Cheltenham opened its doors to 250,000 spectators on March 10, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden rejected growing calls to ban open-air mass gatherings.
He told the BBC, “There is no reason why people should not participate in or cancel such events at this stage. “
But Professor Spector of King’s College London said “the people would probably have died prematurely” because of the decision.
Have these events therefore contributed to an increase in coronavirus cases?
It is impossible to say for sure, but the numbers seen on BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 show in the last week of March, Liverpool and Cheltenham were among the areas with the highest number of suspected cases.
The figures come from the Covid-19 Symptom Study and show that 5 to 6% of the population, aged 20 to 69, has symptoms in these two regions.
Not to be confused with the government contact search application, the search is based on information downloaded by more than three million volunteers across the UK, who submit daily reports identifying if they have any of the 15 symptoms associated with Covid-19.
Irish journalist Melanie Finn recalls the clear difference in approach on either side of the Irish Sea as she travels to the Cheltenham Festival from Dublin.
“We had already canceled the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and that in itself was huge for us,” she said.
“People were in shock. No one could believe it was happening. It was an indicator of the severity of the Irish government. When we left Dublin Airport, it was literally like a ghost town. “
Melanie said racing fans at Cheltenham, on the other hand, thought the British government would have canceled the event if they thought it was unsure.
She said that people ignored the basic security rules: “It was like the last days of the Roman Empire, and I think there was a little feeling that if it was opened, by God, they were going to party. “
She was so concerned that she saw that she asked her employer to take her home in the middle of the festival.
A week later, she developed symptoms of Covid-19 and had to take two weeks off.
The Jockey Club had previously defended the decision to go ahead with the festival, telling the Guardian on April 2 that it had followed “clear and continuous directives” from government and scientific experts.
He added, “We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event, including hundreds of hand sanitizer dispensers and additional sinks. “
On March 11, the second day of the festival, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus pandemic.
“Jump on top of each other”
Later that evening, Liverpool hosted Atletico Madrid for a Champions League football match at Anfield.
About 3000 visiting fans were allowed to go to Merseyside and mingle with bars and restaurants, although Madrid was the epicenter of the epidemic in Spain, and at that time accounted for almost half of country confirmed cases.
Liverpool supporter Joel Rookwood, who has been ill for eight weeks, thinks he contracted Covid-19 that night and recalled how, when goals were scored, spectators were unaware of the risk of transmission of the virus.
“The celebrations were among the most physical I have ever known,” he said. “People were jumping on top of each other. “
The Spirit Of Shankly, a group of Liverpool supporters, said it had raised concerns about the arrival of Madrid supporters at a council-led security meeting two days before the match, but that he had been informed that it would take place in accordance with the advice of the government.
But Liverpool FC could not have unilaterally canceled the match – to decide which of the two clubs qualified for the Champions League quarter-finals. This decision should have been made by one of the governing bodies of football, such as the organizer of the competition, Uefa.
Professor Spector said, “I think the sporting events should have been closed at least a week earlier, because they would have caused more suffering and death that would not have happened otherwise. “
In a press release, the government said, “There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in a particular area, including population density, age, general health and the location of a area on the pandemic curve “.
To learn more about this story, listen to File on 4 – Game Changer: How the UK played during the coronavirus on Tuesday, May 26 at 8:00 p.m. BST on BBC Radio 4.