Premier League grappling again with ominous Covid outlook

Clubs hope new measures will control spread but cases are rising among squads

Arriving fans receive Covid-19 spot checks outside the stadium before the Premier League match between Manchester City and Leeds at the Eithad Stadium. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Midnight on Monday is an unusual hour to announce a fixture postponement. Manchester United would not be playing Brentford on Tuesday, a Premier League statement with a timestamp of 23:53 said, because of “an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak within Manchester United’s squad”. If the news had to be released under the cover of darkness, it was tempting to wonder, how ongoing might the outbreak actually be?

Clubs don’t publish data on Covid cases within their squads and the Premier League doesn’t breakdown its division-wide stats, either. But earlier on Monday a record number of positives across the league had been confirmed, 42 in a week, and so it was possible to imagine that the United outbreak was indeed substantial.

As we head into the week approaching Christmas with a new variant of Covid infecting as many as 200,000 people a day, according to the health secretary, there’s a feeling of familiar storm clouds gathering. Perhaps this is last Christmas all over again, where crowds were banned from stadiums, clubs were under emergency measures and players were subject to public scrutiny over whether their goal celebrations were too intimate.

Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe the sudden outbreaks at a number of top-flight clubs – with positive tests at United, Aston Villa, Spurs, and Brighton to name just a few – are the harbinger of more severe restrictions reminiscent of the spring of 2020 when a suspension of all fixtures was the outcome, a grand shutdown that lasted three months.


The latter would be the outcome nobody wants and speculation about such a thing is certainly something the Premier League would like to minimise. The truth is, however, that while no one can guarantee what will happen over the next few weeks, never mind months, lessons learned from the past two years means football is better prepared for what lies ahead.

The emergency measures of last winter have been reinstated at Premier League clubs, a decision taken by the league’s board last week and reinforced on Tuesday at a shareholders’ meeting. Some of the limits – 15 minutes in a treatment room, masks when moving – may seem arbitrary, but they have been shown to work. Emergency measures brought case numbers down last year and the league argues they can do so again. It is also interesting to note that, alongside these measures, there has been a request that players cut down their social contacts, perhaps a precursor to tighter regulations yet.

The EFL is likely to follow suit this week in strengthening its measures, although under its current system clubs with positive cases must already submit to stringent rules that allow training only by positional group and where non-vaccinated players cannot sit alongside jabbed colleagues on the bus.

The reluctance among some players to get vaccinated remains an ongoing thorn in the side of clubs and leagues. The Premier League last published figures on this subject in October, with 68 per cent of players then double-jabbed. Although they insist the numbers have risen, the league will not make figures public and the rise is unlikely to be sizeable. In the EFL there is now a block on making progress with the roughly 30 per cent of players opposed to the jab. With new UK government rules on contact with Omicron-positive people requiring non-vaccinated individuals to isolate (the jabbed can test each day and otherwise carry on), this is likely to prove a problem.

Having contacts who don’t have to isolate is an improvement on this time last year, at least, as well as proof of the transformational effect that vaccines have had on the risks created by Covid. The new rule is also, however, a reminder of another great uncertainty faced by English football – the actions of the government. The game, like the rest of us, must try to make sense of regulations that often seem inconsistent and contradictory. But it must be seen to be in line not just with the rules but their spirit, something even more difficult to judge.

It was about this time last year that then UK health secretary Matt Hancock saw fit to instruct players that they should “act as if they have Covid” when celebrating goals. The bit left unspoken was what would happen if they did not, but the Premier League moved anyway and warned players off leaping on each others’ backs. The precautions taken this year are primarily to keep people safe and keep the show on the road, but they are also intended to head off any possible government intervention. Minimising bad headlines will be a part of that strategy, so perhaps more midnight missives should be expected. – Guardian