Football’s Covid Crisis: Britain’s (Lack of) Border Control

by | Feb 14, 2021

To those who have been looking properly, the spate of venue changes for the English Premier League (EPL) sides in Uefa club competition is a clear exposition of the United Kingdom government’s past mistakes in its coronavirus (Covid) pandemic policy. It is also a timely reminder of the government’s on-going inability (wilful or otherwise) to learn from said mistakes.

On 11th and 12th March 2020 respectively, Liverpool and Rangers hosted “packed houses” for “round-of-16” European ties, in a week with three more packed houses at racing’s Cheltenham Festival. Liverpool and Rangers welcomed 239 less than 100,000 fans between them; Liverpool 52,267 for their Champions League second leg tie against Spain’s Atletico Madrid, Rangers 47,494 for their Europa League first leg tie with Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen (in which Kai Havertz scored; Chelsea fans may want to watch the video, just to see what that looks like}).

Both British teams lost; Liverpool losing their European title despite going ahead in the tie in extra-time, Havertz opening Leverkusen’s account from the penalty spot in their 3-1 win. But the serious losses were as a result of staging the games at all. Certainly the Liverpool game. Rangers were peer-pressured into very eventually indeed calling off their hosting of Celtic on 15th March, as UK professional football ground to a very reluctant halt, economic concerns trumping health concerns for nowhere near the last time. But the Liverpool situation garnered more scrutiny, with very good reason.

The staging of the tie was controversial. Atleti fans were unable to watch home La Liga matches as Madrid was locked down. But 3,000 of them were let into Anfield. And on 24th April, after a spike in Covid cases and deaths in the city, Liverpool council announced a formal investigation into the possibility of a direct link between match and spike. A study group was formed, with two city universities, to ”explore any impact of COVID-19 as a result of the (match).” A month and a day later, study author, health data analytics consultants Edge Health, analysed the relevant NHS data and concluded that the match led to 41 additional deaths in the subsequent 25-35 days.

This figure is approximately 41 higher than he number of lessons learned. Only the fact that fans are barred across European football is denying the UK government the opportunity to make exactly the same mistake again, which they seem to be in danger of doing by trailing the possibility of summer holidays, after their fatal confusion over facilitating family Christmases.

However, they prefer speedy discovery of new Covid variants once they are here to closing borders to stop them getting here, which seems like post-bolted horse stable-door shutting. Closing borders to stop people “coming over here taking our jobs” was a major Brexit selling point. Doing so for health-protection rather than (unproven) job-protection? Perish the thought, apparently (and goddamn them for making me agree with Home Secretary and horrible human being Priti Patel on this issue).

As a result, most mainland European clubs remain free to travel to the UK for Uefa competition. The reverse, though, is not true. The UK is a greater Covid risk (feel free to draw your own conclusions from that as to the effectiveness of UK government pandemic policies). So, all sorts of convoluted travel and venue arrangements have had to be made to allow ties involving EPL clubs to go ahead.

Germany has banned travellers from the UK (until 17th February, for now). Thus, it was announced last Sunday, RB Leipzig will now host Liverpool in the Champions League on 16th February at the Puskas Arena in Hungarian capital Budapest. The next day, Manchester City were sent on the same trip for their 24th February tie against Borussia Monchengladbach. On Tuesday, Manchester United’s 18th February Europa League visit to Spain’s Real Sociedad was moved to Juventus’s Allianz Stadium in Turin, as Spain too has restricted UK in-coming.

Arsenal will join them in Italy that day, facing Portugal’s Benfica in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. However, Portugal and the UK are mutual travel no-nos. So, while Man Yoo can host Sociedad at Old Trafford on 25th February, Arsenal’s “home” second leg against Lisbon-based Benfica that day will be at Olympiakos’s Stadium Georgios Karaiskakis in Greek capital Athens. Hundreds of miles of extra travel, then, because of travel… er… restrictions. As 200% editor Ian King tweeted on Thursday: “If you don’t see how stupid it is to send football clubs from Portugal and England to Italy and Greece to play football at the current time, I don’t know what to say.”

At least the EPL and English Football League (EFL) testing news remains good. A top detective could possibly name which two EPL players or staff tested positive in February’s first week (Lt. Colombo would know straight away but pursue them for an entire episode). And these are the best test results since records began. There were also two positive tests during the week commencing 19th October. But they came from 1,609 tests. Last week’s duo emerged from 2,970 tests. In the EFL over the same week, there were 16 positives from 5,470 tests, after 19 from 5.448 the previous week, with the only blot (dot?) on this landscape being the number of Covid-free clubs dropping from 65 to 64.

The leagues have yet to publish data on vaccinated staff. And they probably daren’t tell of any vaccinated players, after the furore surrounding National League top-flighters Chesterfield. No news on the promised investigation into the vaccination of three Spireites players and three staff. And the Daily Mail has moved on to stir other shit. But, in contrast, the club were this week praised for Covid honesty.

One of their players showed viral symptoms during the build-up to last Saturday’s FA Trophy tie at Aldershot, forcing Chesterfield to withdraw from the game an hour before kick-off. The player tested positive on Sunday. And with ten players forced into isolation, the club had to cede the tie and withdraw from the competition. Despite the late postponement, Shots boss Martin Searle appreciated Chesterfield’s attitude: “Fair play to Chesterfield. It must have crossed peoples’ mind to say ‘let’s leave that one.’ But it’s nice to see people taking this disease seriously and that peoples’ well-being is being put at the forefront of everything.”

Chesterfield’s next three National League games were postponed (starting with last Tuesday’s league trip to Aldershot… nothing personal, one assumes). And this could all-but-end their season given the current National League ‘situation,’ which is another story… this one, in fact.

No more news, either, of players having clandestine haircuts… or at least no more players dim enough to post barbershop pics on Instagram. And goalscorers continue to get as mobbed as ever, with continuing zero impact on Covid test results.

In football, as in life, data is encouraging. I’m as virulent as any Covid variant in my criticism of this government. But their vaccine procurement and roll-out policies deserve equal praise. And a combo of all of the above suggests that the beginning of the end of football’s Covid crisis maybe perhaps on the horizon. Possibly (hope I’ve qualified that enough). As long as the government and the game make no more mistakes anyw …ah.