Wembley Fans Return With U.K. Scientists Watching Every Move

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London’s Wembley Stadium welcomes back soccer fans for the first time in over a year on Sunday, part of trials the U.K. government hopes will enable the restart of mass events that were banned during the pandemic.

Four thousand spectators will be allowed to watch the FA Cup semifinal between Leicester City and Southampton -- a fraction of the stadium’s 90,000 capacity -- to allow scientists to begin examining the risk of virus transmission.

It’s one of a series of pilot events over the coming weeks to test how best to reopen larger venues safely. Some will not require social distancing or face coverings, according to official guidance published Friday.

Officials believe the events are crucial in getting the sports and culture sector back to normality as soon as possible, boosting jobs and growth. Prime Minister Boris Johnson aims to remove all restrictions -- including on large events -- on June 21.

But concerns are growing that the his “road map” out of lockdown could be knocked off course by the rise of new coronavirus variants which could prove to be partially vaccine-resistant.

Mutation Fears

Public Health England said Thursday that 77 cases of a new variant with potentially worrying mutations, first detected in India, have been identified in the U.K. Officials are concerned about the potential for virus variants to undermine the U.K.’s vaccine rollout.

The U.K.’s “events research program” aims to explore how a mix of testing, social distancing, ventilation and face coverings can inform decisions on lifting restrictions.

Scientists will gather evidence on the movement and behavior of attendees: how they interact with each other, where they choose to sit, how and where they gather in groups. Government officials are in contact with counterparts in Spain and Holland, where similar preliminary studies are underway.

Trials

The number of spectators allowed at pilot events will increase in the coming weeks. About 8,000 fans will attend soccer’s Carabao Cup final at Wembley between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur on April 25, and 21,000 supporters will be allowed at the FA Cup final at the same venue on May 15.

Other trials are at indoor venues, such as the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theater. It was around a third full for the first round of the tournament on Saturday -- but the numbers will steadily increase until reaching its full capacity of around 980 people for the final on May 2 and 3.

All attendees at the pilot events will need to take a rapid lateral flow test to prove they are negative -- either on the day of the event or the day before -- but proof of vaccination will not be required to gain entry. They will also be asked to take a PCR test before and after the event to ensure any virus transmission is properly monitored.

The government was forced to defend the rollout of lateral flow tests on Friday, after The Guardian newspaper reported senior officials had raised concerns that as few as 2% of positive results could be accurate in places with low infection rates.

‘Essential Tool’

Rapid testing is an “essential tool to control the spread of the virus,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health said.

The scheme has already suffered some controversy: one Liverpool-based comedy club pulled out after some newspapers reported it would be involved in vaccine passport trials. Public health officials linked to the program have made clear that proof of vaccination will play no part in reopening venues in the pilot events.

The potential use of vaccine certificates to reopen the economy is being examined in a separate government review. They have not been ruled out for future use, Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters on Friday.

“We continue to explore this area and take evidence in this area as we move forward,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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