Football fans flock back to Wembley for FA Cup as part of Covid passport pilot

A jubilant army of 4,000 football fans went to Wembley on Sunday as part of a series of Covid ‘test’ events.

It was the biggest football crowd in the UK since lockdown began in March last year.

Key frontline workers and local residents were given prized places for the Southampton v Leicester City FA Cup semi-final.

Every fan had to take a lateral flow test at a testing centre no more than 24 hours before the game in the 90,000-seater stadium.

They were also asked to have two PCR (polymerase chain reaction) checks – processed in a lab – one before, the other five days after the game.

And it could pave the way for a 21,000 crowd at the FA Cup final on May 15.

Anna Chapman, a student who lives close to Wembley, was one of the lucky few to land a ticket. “I just wanted to get back in a stadium,” she said.

“Although it’s limited, it’s just to get back to experience the aura of a stadium, the emotions, the atmosphere.”

Her lateral flow test had to be at an asymptomatic testing centre, not at home – no more than 24 hours before the game.

On arrival, fans were required to show the text or email with the negative result.

They were also requested to take the PCR test before and after the match.

“We have to show our text saying we’re negative to get in the stadium,” added Anna.

Part of the Government Events Research Programme, the games will be used to check the impact of crowds on infection rates.

The semi final was one of three pilot matches due to be played at Wembley. The Carabao Cup final on Sunday (April 25) between Man City and Spurs will have 8,000 fans – 2,000 from each club. Another 4,000 allocation will be split between groups including Brent residents and NHS staff.

Modified social distancing, ventilation and rapid Covid testing on entry are provided. The behaviour of fans will be observed using video cameras, and journeys to and from events will be monitored.

“This is a world-leading study,” said Prof Paul Monks, chief scientific adviser at the Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“The UK is at the forefront of this research. Results will determine just how quickly we emerge from lockdown this summer. It is exciting – and daunting.”

Music lovers in Liverpool will enjoy live gigs once again at pilot events without social distancing. A night at the Circus Nightclub in the city on 30 April will not require people to wear face masks or practice social distancing, but will have a reduced capacity.

A concert at Sefton Park will see the audience provide proof of a negative Covid test before gaining entry on May 2. Crucially, these pilots could help a future “certification” programme, also known as vaccine passports or testing passports.

But there have been protests that the passports are not fair on vulnerable groups.

The first event was meant to be Friday, but Liverpool’s Hot Water Comedy Club pulled out after claiming it had received 4,000 hate messages. People had messaged the venue angry that it had been linked to “vaccine passports”.

A total of 632 tickets were also sold for the Crucible Theatre to see Ronnie O’Sullivan defend his title on Saturday.

It came after months of empty stands and soulless stadiums, the first live crowd at any UK sporting event this year.

Environment Secretary George Eustice warned it was still ‘too early’ to say whether the UK remains on track for the reopening of all indoor hospitality on May 17.

“I think we are on track in the sense that we are on track with the rollout of the vaccination programme,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “We have vaccinated everybody over 50 and this week they are offering vaccinations as well to those under 50, starting with the 45 to 59-year-olds – so that bit is on track.

“We are being a bit cautious. Although we have now got 60% of the adult population vaccinated we do just have to keep a close eye on these variants of concern.

“Also, see what the impacts are of the easements we have just made, the loosenings we have just made, before moving to the next stage.”

Meanwhile, a Shadow Cabinet Minister told of her joy at securing a ticket to a trial event aimed at getting fans back to sports stadiums.

Shadow Culture Secretary and Spurs fan Jo Stevens will be at Wembley to roar on her side in the Carabao Cup Final.

Ms Stevens, who was hospitalised with coronavirus earlier this year, said: “Like all fans I’m desperate to get back into stadiums to watch live sport.

“Watching on TV is great, but it’s not the same as being at the ground, watching your team, surrounded by fellow supporters. I can’t wait to be at Wembley to watch Spurs in the final.”

She urged the Government to adopt Labour’s three-point plan to “protect the great British summer and get sports fans back into stadiums”. Its blueprint calls on ministers to:

* Publish the full results from the sporting and cultural pilots so lessons can be learned quickly, adaptations made and the potential value of mass event testing be maximised.

* Sort out test, trace and isolate,to prevent further surges of the virus – mass testing needs to go hand in hand with community, public health-led contact tracing to find cases, backed by proper financial support so people who are ill can isolate.

* Quarantine arrivals from all countries, with exemptions for some professions, to protect the country from dangerous new variants.

Ms Stevens added: “There has been a lot of talk from the Prime Minister about bringing more sporting events to the UK later this year.

“But we can only do this if it is safe, so it’s important that all the lessons from the pilot events are published and learnt from quickly by the Government, to avoid another situation where public expectations are raised with promises that can’t be delivered.

“By adopting our three-point plan, fans and families alike, can start to look forward to a brilliant British summer, assured that they will be kept safe.

“I’ll be playing my part by getting tested ahead of going to Wembley – we are calling on the Government to play their part too.”

The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield was a third full for the first round of the World Snooker Championship. The final is set to be played in front of a capacity crowd of 980 people on May 3. World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn said: “We are sending out a message to all other indoor sports, cinemas, theatres.

“The data that comes from this is going to be vital to getting back to normality. In my 45 years of promoting sport, if we are full for the final after the year we’ve been through at the Crucible, with 500

million watching this around the world, I’m going to put this down as one of our greatest moments.

“I don’t want to name drop, I was talking to Andrew Lloyd Webber and he was like, ‘Come on, get me crowds back in my theatres’ and I’m like, ‘Andrew, I’m doing my best’.”

The pilots will decide Step Four of our lockdown roadmap, when the government hopes to lift all legal limits on social contact. It will begin no earlier than June 21.

The Dept for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has revealed that so-called ‘Covid passports’ will not be used during any of the pilots announced so far. The events will provide data on how large-scale crowds could be able to return to stadiums safely after this point.

Public health expert Prof Iain Buchan, of Liverpool University estimated the risk of an outbreak following one of the trial events as “about one in several thousand people”. “This is very much an ethically thought through careful science led programme,” he said.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hopes the Sefton Park gig meant the return to live music would not be “too much longer”. Operating slightly below its capacity of 7,500, researchers on site will examine the movements and behaviour of the 5,000-strong crowd.

Ticket-holders will be required to take a lateral flow test, which can produce a result within 30 minutes, at a local testing centre before entry. That is to test the role such facilities could play in the return of large-scale events.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said results would “inform our approach to ensuring future big events can take place safely”. “By trialling a range of measures to reduce transmission, we are able to gather vital evidence to inform our plans for allowing events in the future,” he added.

“I am hugely grateful to scientists and clinicians working hard across the country so we can start to enjoy these events again safely.”

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