In late September, a number of football league clubs demonstrated that they could welcome fans back safely into stadiums in several trial games. I was fortunate enough to be at Bloomfield Road to see Blackpool beat Swindon in one of those successful and safe pilot games.
Football league clubs have excellent crowd control due to pre-existing regulations. Working with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, they have developed guidance for the safe, socially distanced return of fans. Of course, that brings challenges—fans must follow the spectators code of conduct that is issued to them before games—but from what I witnessed, fans abided meticulously by the planned safety measures.
A survey asking fans whether they had adhered to restrictions following the pilot games suggested that more than 98% thought they had. The measures that had been put in place, including wearing face masks, using hand sanitiser, following one-way systems and staggering entry and exit to the stadium, were conducted in an exemplary manner.
About 1,000 fans were at Bloomfield Road, which has a maximum capacity of more than 17,000. In my opinion, the attendance could easily have been increased to between 25% and 35% of the total capacity with no impact on the safety of those attending. That is important, because although the clubs that took part in the trial games, including Blackpool, were delighted to do so, the cost of opening stadiums for such a small number of fans was excessive and would not be commercially viable on a regular basis. If we are going to see fans back in stadiums, of course that has to be done safely, but it also has to be done at a level at which it is viable to operate in the short term.
Before the new national restrictions were introduced, cinemas, theatres and other indoor venues had allowed audiences back. Football stadiums are obviously better ventilated and, at about 30% capacity, would be operating at a lower proportion than the indoor venues that were allowed to open in October. Most clubs can also provide enough car parking spaces for that level of attendance and did so cost free at the trial games. That resulted in more than 90% of fans travelling by car or on foot and reduced the risk of transmission from journeys before and after games on public transport. It is not just the fans who are suffering; it is the clubs directly. Their finances are at breaking point. I implore the Government to get fans back into stadiums as soon as possible.