Covid Passports, timed entry slots and face masks… what fans can expect at Premier League matches

Premier League and EFL clubs are still awaiting guidance on the use of Covid Passports and face masks at matches, with little more than three weeks before the first game in the top flight and only two in the lower divisions.

Sportsmail understands that top flight officials were already urgently working on a scheme for Covid certification from match round one, which begins on August 13, after Government made clear that is the expectation.

And now they are desperately seeking further clarification following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s declaration last night that everyone who wants to go to a nightclub from the end of September will have to show proof of having received two doses of a Covid vaccine.

In addition, the PM said ‘other venues where large crowds gather’ could also be made to adopt the checks, which is likely to include sport.

As well as Covid passports, fans can expect timed entry slots and to be asked to wear face coverings within concourses and toilets inside the stadium when they return in a few weeks time, even though masks are no longer compulsory in national life.

The chairman of the Man City fans’ group, Alan Galley, has no objection to Covid passes

The Government hardened its position on Covid Passports, last night.

The proposal for nightclubs, which the PM said would be enforced by law, requires revellers to have had two doses of the Covid vaccine.  This is a more stringent  requirement than the current Covid Passport, which has been tested at various sports events, including Euro 2012, in recent weeks.

FAN SUPPORT FOR COVID PASSPORTS

Premier League football fans and supporters’ groups have given their backing to the use of covid passes to secure full capacity at stadiums next season.

And earlier this summer fans’ representatives said they wanted the government to hurry up and approve the scheme so clubs and supporters could prepare for matches that begin on August 13.

Sportsmail asked fan groups if they would support covid passes that included proof of vaccination, a negative test or natural immunity. 

‘We are supportive because the main aim is to get fans back in and enjoying the beautiful game,’ said Matt Davis, a committee member at the Foxes Trust, which represents the supporters of Leicester City.

‘On our board the unanimous view was, ‘yes’ [to Covid passes],’ added Davis.

The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust has given its backing to the scheme, along with fan groups at Arsenal, Manchester United, Southampton and Manchester City also supported Covid Passports when approached by Sportsmail

‘The most important thing is the health, safety and well-being of supporters, but within that, any scheme that gets supporters back in is a good idea,’ said Dan Silver from Chelsea Supporters’ Trust.

‘Our fans are desperate to get back, like many others. Schemes like this have our full support.

 

Until now, the passport, which uses the NHS app, has included evidence of two jabs, a negative test or natural immunity from a previous infection.

Mr Johnson now says that, at least in nightclubs, ‘proof of a negative test will no longer be enough’. The aim is to force people aged 18-30 to take up vaccination – and that age group will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated by the end of September.

Regardless of the latest development, sources within the game admit that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the football authorities to ignore the guidance already published by Government, which includes use of Covid Passports (including negative tests), crowd control measures like timed entry and face masks.

On Monday last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged venues with large crowds to adopt Covid certification ‘as a matter of social responsibility’.

And on Friday, formal guidance was finally issued ahead of Freedom Day – today – when social distancing restrictions are lifted.

The government recommends ‘the use of the NHS Covid Pass in facilities or events where people are likely to be in close proximity to a large number of people from other households for a sustained period of time’.

It includes ‘very large… sport events’

And now a government source has told Sportsmail that ‘it is for the Premier League’ to work out the details and implement a scheme and that it was ‘actively’ developing one.

In contrast, some nightclubs declared their intention to party on regardless, hence the Government’s tougher stance.

Football is now scrambling to agree and communicate a plan that will work and can be enforced.

The situation is potentially even more complicated in the EFL, where clubs are concerned about the resource required and a lack of clarity over what constitutes a ‘very large’ event.

Cabinet Secretary, Michael Gove, has previously suggested the threshold could be 20,000 people, but government sources insist this figure has not been agreed and it certainly has not been communicated to clubs.

Such a threshold would not include newly-promoted Premier League side, Brentford, whose stadium accommodates 17,250 fans, but it would affect League One Sunderland, where the Stadium of Light could accommodate 49,000 supporters.

The EFL’s first league fixtures fall on August 7, and any threshold will have huge impact on which stadiums require passports and which don’t.

Socially distanced crowds of up to 10,000 spectators were allowed to return to Premier League matches at the end of last season

Socially distanced crowds of up to 10,000 spectators were allowed to return to Premier League matches at the end of last season

On top of all that, preseason friendlies are under way with no agreed league-wide rules in place, other than the general guidance issued by Government. At least one Premier League club told Sportsmail they are simply focused on selling tickets.

It will be up to each club, in discussion with local authorities, to agree capacities.

The return of domestic football comes after large attendances at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, in the final and semi-finals of Euro 2020, at Lord’s and at Wimbledon, which all included Covid Passports as part of the Government’s Events Research Programme.

However, the analysis of those events, which have only just concluded, is not yet available. 

So, as football scrambles to decide on the use of Covid Passports and other measures, Sportsmail has spoken to the key players, and this is our assessment of what the 2021-22 season will look like for fans:

Chelsea fans have enjoyed more matches than most after attending the FA Cup and the Champions League finals, and the supporters' trust would support Covid Passes

Chelsea fans have enjoyed more matches than most after attending the FA Cup and the Champions League finals, and the supporters’ trust would support Covid Passes

Will we have capacity crowds at football matches this season?

Yes… Well, that is what we have been promised and that is what is anticipated, but not necessarily across the board every week and there will be rules attached.

With Freedom Day, social distancing restrictions have finally been lifted as the country moves from step three to step four of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown.

So, on the face of it there is no impediment to full houses up and down the country… including at pre-season friendlies, but local Safety Advisory Groups – which include council officers, health officials and emergency services – have to sanction crowd numbers.

It is possible that capacities could vary between cities and at different times as infection rates rise and fall, although football’s hope is that Covid passports guard against this, where they are in use.

And one source within the game conceded there will be ‘mitigations and restrictions’ attached to large crowds, although no one is clear at this stage exactly what they will be.

In trial events fans have  been tested for covid prior to and after attendance at matches

In trial events fans have  been tested for covid prior to and after attendance at matches

Since the Government has only issued ‘guidance’ on Covid Passports so far, will I have to have one from the beginning of the season?

COVID PASSPORTS

The Government has been testing the safe return of fans as part of the Events Research Programme, which has been under way since late March.

The latest phase has investigated the use of Covid Passports, which have been sued to test the return of capacity crowds and very large attendances.

Among the high-profile events featured have been a string of Euro 2020 matches, including the semi-finals and final at Wembley, when more than 60,000 people could attend.

Wimbledon’s Centre Court was allowed a maximum capacity of 15,000 in the second week of the Championships.

A full house of 30,000 fans packed in to Lord’s for the second One Day International between England and Pakistan.

But the biggest event of all was the British Grand Prix, when 140,000 people attended Silverstone on Sunday to watch Lewis Hamilton claim a controversial win.

Previous phases in the Government’s testing programme analysed the impact of social distancing and masks, gradually increasing capacities including at various football matches, culminating in the FA Cup final between Leicester City and Manchester City, which was attended by 20,000 people.

Yes, if the Premier League and the top flight clubs agree to implement them and make them a condition of the ground regulations, which supporters effectively sign up to when they buy a ticket.

It seems highly likely they will be required from day one. 

For the return of fans last season, Chelsea included a clause in their ground regulations relating to testing. It stated: ‘Before entering the Ground you may be asked to undertake temperature checks and/or any other testing regarded as prudent in order to safeguard against COVID-19 risk.’

It would be the same in the EFL, although the lack of clarity over the threshold for ‘large’ events leaves many clubs in limbo.

With the Prime Minister now insisting he will force people who want to go to a nightclub to prove they have had two jabs  from the end of September, you will end up with a passport sooner or later.

The current passports are proof of Covid status and use the NHS app. This demonstrates a person has either had two doses of vaccine, a negative test or natural immunity from a previous infection. They are seen as more inclusive since they accommodate people who have not been vaccinated.

From the end of September, the PM is now pushing for proof of a two-dose vaccination – testing will not be enough.

If Government feels so strongly, why did they not just say you have to have one in the first place?

The issue of Covid passports has rattled around government for months.

Enthusiasm for the scheme has waxed and waned and just as it looked like they would be ditched in the week before Freedom Day, they bounced back, somewhat against the run of play.

It appears, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was persuaded that with the Delta variant of coronavirus rampant, large gatherings posed too great a risk of fuelling the third wave of infection without some form of mitigation.

Politically, this was tricky. Previously, Government had said MPs would have a say on their introduction and plenty of Conservative politicians and voters don’t want them.

In fact, Sportsmail understands the Government had concluded it could not win a vote on Covid Passports after backbenchers threatened to rebel and opposition parties spoke against them.

So, football and venues with large gatherings were not forced to use them, but there is guidance to suggest they should. While there was an acceptance in football that it had to follow the guidance, other sectors, including nightclubs, appeared less compliant.

However, the balance of health and politics has shifted again. With dire warnings over the potential size of the third wave of Covid infection, and images of packed clubs flooding the media on Monday, the PM has decided to toughen his stance and demand double vaccination to attend nightclubs.

There will have to be a vote in Parliament to approve the move, which could apply to other events with large crowds, including football.  

Euro 2020 final between England and Italy at Wembley was a Government Covid test event

Euro 2020 final between England and Italy at Wembley was a Government Covid test event

But do Covid Passports even work? Some people were sceptical at Wembley and Wimbledon?

The answer to that question will be considered by the scientists in the Government’s Event Research Programme.

But how Covid Passports will be checked in future is a valid question. Covid checks at the Government’s third phase test events were very quick, but the trials did highlight some problems.

There was surprise at some of the events at the cursory nature of the checks which consisted of a steward glancing at a QR code on a smart phone. One fan at Wembley suggested he could have shown a QR code for a free pizza and still gained entry.

In addition, there was incredulity that negative tests were self-certified. On top of all that, covid checks collapsed completely at Wembley Stadium for the Euro 2020 final, when stewards were forced to abandon their posts as the ground came under attack from fans without tickets.

While that event was unusual, will checks be thorough if stewards are faced with thousands of people trying to cram into the ground at 3pm? Systems based on manual checks are susceptible to pressure.

Centre Court and Court One at Wimbledon operated at full capacity in the Championships' second week

Centre Court and Court One at Wimbledon operated at full capacity in the Championships’ second week 

Surely, we can use technology to scan the Covid Passports?

Yes, and that technology already exists.

In fact, it would be relatively simply, to create a system that scans a person’s Covid Passport and indicates they are virus-free.

In addition, the system could incorporate other compliance information, such as has the supporter confirmed online that they have read the terms and conditions of entry and agreed to wear a face mask?

Leading industry figures say a consistent system that could be used across travel, sport and entertainment would be the best solution.

Health company Prenetics already offers a similar system to clients, including the Premier League, for whom it provides health passes at stadiums to ensure Covid bubbles remain secure.

‘We have deployed a number of these solutions across our clients in sport and entertainment that are fast and easy to use without having to pass private health data,’ said Andrew Steele, head of product.

It is likely that whatever comes in at the beginning will evolve with time.

Health passes have been used in the Premiwer League to preserve team bubbles and prevent matches being called off due to coronavirus infections within squads

Health passes have been used in the Premiwer League to preserve team bubbles and prevent matches being called off due to coronavirus infections within squads

OK, so I have a Covid Passport, is that it, will the experience be back to pre-pandemic?

The NHS App has been modified to allow covid vaccination status and test results to be displayed at pilot events

The NHS App has been modified to allow covid vaccination status and test results to be displayed at pilot events

No. Despite all the talk of Freedom Day, it seems highly unlikely that at big stadiums the match day experience will be pre-pandemic. Taking into account the Government test events and previous experience, when fans returned to stadiums last season, you can expect changes.

They are likely to be timed entry slots – you may miss that last pint. These are included in the government guidance for event planning, where there will be crowded spaces.

At Wembley Stadium, during Euro 2020, fans were allocated slots to smooth the flow of people given the need to check Covid status and to avoid bottlenecks that pose a bigger risk of transmission.

In reality, they were not enforced, but it may be possible to achieve greater compliance at a club level where supporters come back every week and would not want to risk a penalty.

Leicester City's fan group, Foxes Trust, is in favour of NHS Covid passes to secure full crowds

Leicester City’s fan group, Foxes Trust, is in favour of NHS Covid passes to secure full crowds

What about masks, they are not compulsory now, either? Will I have to wear one in a football ground?

If I were a betting man… I’d say, yes, I’m lumping on. At least, you will almost certainly be asked to wear one. How that will be enforced remains to be seen, even if it is a condition of entry.

In England, the legal requirement to wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces has ended, but we come back to Government guidance.

It says it ‘expects and recommends’ the continued wearing of masks in crowded areas, which would include some parts of football grounds, especially concourses and toilets.

The toilets are considered a risk-area within football stadiums since people make a mad dash for the loo before kick-off, at half-time and after the game.

A source close to discussions on the return of fans said that ‘if it’s in the guidance, you can expect to see that in football grounds’.

But the recommendation will probably not stretch to wearing a mask in the bowl of the stadium, when seated and watching.

When fans returned for the two games at the end of last season masks were compulsory in all areas of the stadium. However, in the Government test events, mask-wearing rules varied as scientists trialed different behaviours.

At Wembley for the Euro 2020 final, masks were not required once the fans had reached their seats. However, many people abandoned them altogether inside the stadium, even in the concourses, where they should have been worn, and the rules were not enforced. Although to be fair, stewards were manning the barricades as hordes of ticketless fans tried to break in.

Football clubs will not relish the prospect of having to police mask wearing among a divided public. Who would?

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