LONDON (AP) – The UK government has faced accusations of mixed messages that could threaten its plan to completely lift lockdown restrictions in England next month after deciding this week to allow more than 60,000 people to the inside Wembley Stadium for the final stages of the European Football Championship.
Following discussions with UEFA, the governing body of European football, the government has increased the number of fans allowed inside the legendary London Stadium for the semi-finals on July 6-7 and the final on 11 July.
Wembley, which can seat 90,000 people, will now be allowed to operate at around 75% of its capacity for all three matches, making it the largest sporting gatherings since the coronavirus pandemic took hold 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 move to increase Wembley’s capacity has raised concerns that it will fuel the current wave of infections in the UK, which has already suffered Europe’s second-worst pandemic toll of 128,000.
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Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, warned that allowing 60,000 fans to assemble at Wembley is a “recipe for disaster” given the prevalence of the delta variant first identified in India, which according to scientists, is 40 to 80% more contagious. .
“We are so close to bringing this virus under control with the success of the vaccination program – why endanger the end of the lockdown on July 19?” ” he said.
Although infections are less likely in an outdoor environment, public health experts have warned that the virus could still find a way to spread, especially as tens of thousands of fans make their way to and from the stadium.
“Yes, being outside will offset the risk – but there is no zero risk,” Dr Catherine Smallwood, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization’s European office, told The Associated Press. in Copenhagen. “It’s not limited to the stadiums themselves. It is also around stadiums, gatherings that take place outside, in bars and clubs, in foyers.
Smallwood said scenes like those at a rocking stadium in Budapest last Saturday when Hungary drew 1-1 against world champions France were “something we should be worried about”. She urged the tournament organizers to do everything possible to reduce the level of risk.
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The UK government is already aware of the potential negative impact of large-scale events. After all, there is evidence that a European Champions League football match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival helped spread the virus in 2020.
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Unlike most other countries in Europe, the UK has seen an increase in infections in recent weeks despite a widely hailed vaccine rollout. The virus has spread widely among younger age groups, most of whom have yet to receive a dose of the vaccine. Government figures on Wednesday showed 16,135 additional new cases, the highest daily rate since February 6.
The Conservative government hopes its rapid vaccine rollout will bring the current outbreak under control and limit the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital treatment, paving the way for the remaining restrictions on social contacts to be lifted on July 19. Figures from Wednesday showed that around 65% of the British population received one dose of the vaccine, while 47% received two.
He says the increased capacity for Wembley matches – and the Wimbledon tennis tournament finals on the weekend of July 10 and 11 – will be part of his event research program on hosting mass events in any security he organized. He also said that all match ticket holders must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of two doses of the vaccine – something that is not required when fans go to watch a game in. a pub.
Media Secretary John Whittingdale said test events so far, including the Brit Awards for Music, “have yielded very positive results” and an analysis will be released shortly.
Whittingdale also said the government would accede to UEFA’s request that around 2,500 VIPs – such as officials, politicians and sponsors – be allowed into the country for the final stages of the tournament without having to. self-quarantine. He said, however, that their movements will be severely restricted.
Right now, most travelers returning to the UK face 10 days of home quarantine, and those from high-risk countries must self-quarantine in special hotels.
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“Those who are allowed to enter the country to watch the game come precisely for this,” he told ITV broadcaster. “They’re not allowed to just tour Britain while they’re here. They go in, they stay in a designated place, they watch the game, then they leave.
Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, warned people could easily be confused about the messages at a critical time in the pandemic.
“If we live in a society that tells us’ Well, it’s good that 60,000 people meet at Wembley ‘, it’s very difficult at the same time to say to people,’ Look, there’s still a pandemic there. down, and we still have to be careful, ”he told BBC radio.
If the England national team reach the final stages of the tournament, concerns over capacity issues at Wembley could be quashed by other means of spreading the virus as fans celebrate or sympathize together.
After all, England haven’t won a major tournament title, let alone a final, as they hosted the 1966 World Cup.