Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden accepts there is a growing sense of frustration at the ban on live crowds at sporting events, but insists there can be no change until the spread of coronavirus is curbed.
Speaking at an appearance in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, Dowden was asked by Conservative MP Steve Brine about the fact that some indoor performances, including a speaking event with former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger at the London Palladium, have been allowed to take place with socially-distanced crowds, while live football remains behind closed doors.
Brine said the apparent contradiction “looks terrible”.
“Of course I accept people’s frustration at the inconsistency there,” the Secretary of State said.
“In relation to sport, we had sports on a path to normality. At that time I was being attacked by the arts for prioritising sports. The next stage was to have pilots to move to a point from October 1 whereby we would be able to have socially-distanced spectators in stadiums.
“That is what I desperately wanted to happen. But there is very clear evidence from the scientific community that at this stage of the disease, with rapidly rising infections, we should be imposing restrictions – which we are – not further easements.
“We are doing things that are positively hateful, but the reason we are doing it is to secure public safety.”
He went on to suggest that the relatively small amount of indoor events could not be compared with the potential for a nationwide return to sporting fixtures.
“If we had social distancing for sports that is a lot of people coming week in, week out going to sports stadiums up and down the country,” he said.
“There are actually very few socially-distanced indoor performances.”
On the wider notion of when a return to near normality might be feasible for spectator events, Dowden outlined the potential breakthroughs that may be required but was in no position to posit a timeline.
“There are three things that could enable this to happen,” he said.
“One is clearly the vaccine…the second is in relation to ‘on day’ testing, so if we got to the point where have the level of testing and the confidence in it.
“The third thing is natural progression of the disease and measures to control it, so we have a confidence that we’ve got it under control and it’s on the right trajectory. Those are all the factors at play which hold me back at this stage from giving that ‘not before’ date.”
Dowden made it clear that the initiative to get supporters back in the stands was still a priority and would be back up and running as soon as the virus was sufficiently suppressed.
“We were ready to go, the pilots had been successful and we were ready to go from October 1. We had to pause it given the rapid expansion of the disease,” he said.
“When we get to the point where we have confidence we have got the disease under control in the sense of we’re not on this rapid upward curve, I would rapidly want to return to this decision.
“Through things like the Sports Technology and Innovation Group we are continuing to look at further work we can do to further increase our assurance about minimising the risk around this. We are ready to go as soon as we get the starting gun fired.
“We want to go ahead, it is simply a pause given where we are with the virus.”