LONDON – The British government faced accusations of mixed messaging Wednesday that could threaten its plan to fully lift lockdown restrictions in England next month after it decided to allow more than 60,000 people inside Wembley Stadium for the latter stages of soccer's European Championship.
Following discussions with UEFA, European soccer's governing body, the government increased the number of fans allowed inside the London stadium for the semifinals on July 6 and 7 and the final on July 11.
Wembley, which can take 90,000, will now be allowed to be at about 75% capacity for the three matches, making them the largest sporting gatherings since the coronavirus pandemic took root in the country in March 2020. In contrast, only around 20,000 people were inside the stadium on Tuesday night when England beat the Czech Republic 1-0.
The decision to increase Wembley's capacity has stoked worries that it will fuel the current wave of infections in the U.K., which has already endured Europe's second-worst pandemic death toll of 128,000.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, warned that allowing 60,000 fans to crowd into Wembley is a “recipe for disaster” given the prevalence of the delta variant first identified in India, which scientists say is 40% to 80% more contagious.
“We are so close to getting on top of this virus with the success of the vaccination program –- why put the end of lockdown on July 19 at risk?” he said.
Although infections are less likely in an outdoor environment, public health experts warned that the virus could still find a way to spread, notably as tens of thousands of fans travel to and from the stadium.
“Yes, being outside will offset the risk — but there is no zero risk,” Dr. Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at the World Health Organization’s Europe office in Copenhagen, told The Associated Press. “It’s not limited to the stadia themselves. It’s also around the stadia, the gatherings that happen outside of it, in bars and clubs, in households.”
Smallwood said scenes like those in a rocking Budapest stadium last Saturday when Hungary drew 1-1 with world champion France were “something that we should be worried about.” She urged tournament organizers to put in ”every effort" to reduce the level of risk.
The U.K. government already knows the potential negative impact of large-scale events. After all, there is evidence that a European Champions League soccer match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid and the Cheltenham horse racing festival helped seed the virus in 2020.
Unlike most other countries in Europe, the U.K. has seen a spike in infections over the past few weeks despite a widely lauded rollout of vaccines. The virus has been largely spreading among younger age groups, most of whom have yet to receive a dose of vaccine. On Wednesday, government figures showed another 16,135 new cases, the highest daily rate since Feb. 6.
The Conservative government hopes its rapid rollout of vaccines will keep the current outbreak in check and limit the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital treatment, thereby paving the way for it to lift remaining restrictions on social contact on July 19. Wednesday's figures showed that around 65% of Britain's population has received one dose of vaccine, while 47% have had two.
It says the increased capacity for the Wembley matches — and the finals at the Wimbledon tennis tournament on the weekend of July 10 and 11 — will be part of its Event Research Programme on holding mass events safely that it has been running. It also said all ticket-holders for the matches must show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of two vaccine doses — something that's not required when fans go to a watch a match in a pub.
Media Minister John Whittingdale said the test events so far, including music's Brit Awards, “have shown very successful results" and analysis will be published soon.
Whittingdale also indicated the government will grant UEFA's request for around 2,500 VIPs — such as officials, politicians and sponsors — to be allowed to enter the country for the latter stages of the tournament without having to quarantine. He said, however, their movements will be severely constrained.
Right now most travelers returning to the U.K. face 10 days of quarantine at home and those from high-risk countries must quarantine at special hotels.
“Those who are allowed to come into the country in order to attend the match come in for precisely that,” he told broadcaster ITV. “They’re not allowed to just go on a tour of Britain whilst they’re here. They come in, they stay in a designated place, they attend the match, and then they leave.”
Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, warned that people could easily get confused about the messaging at a critical time in the pandemic.
“If we live in a society which tells us ‘Well, it’s fine for 60,000 people to meet at Wembley,’ it’s very hard at the same time to say to people, ‘Look, there’s still a pandemic out there, and we’ve still got to be careful’,” he told BBC radio.
If England's national team makes the latter stages of the tournament, then concerns over the capacity issues at Wembley may be overridden by other ways of spreading of the virus as fans celebrate or commiserate together.
After all, England has not won a major tournament title, let alone made a final, since it hosted the 1966 World Cup.
Keaten reported from Geneva.