Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19 — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:26 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:26 pm, 9th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this evening’s proceedings. If the broadcasters did not pick it up, Jonathan Gullis finished by shouting, “Up the Vale!”, which I am happy to adopt on his behalf.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He set the picture eloquently. In the debate, we have had passionate contributions from 15 hon. Members, all representing their constituencies and their clubs diligently. Above all, I want to acknowledge the frustration of the 200,000 people who signed this petition, more than 100 of whom were from my constituency.

I feel that I should declare an interest at the outset, as a season ticket holder at Airdrieonians football club—indeed, long suffering now, for 19 years. Long before I was an MP, and long after I have finished being an MP, I am first and foremost a Diamonds supporter. Like others, I find not being in the Jack Dalziel stand on a Saturday with my son and my mates hugely frustrating.

Much as I have appreciated the ingenuity of clubs such as my own, which have tried to get teams live streamed using AI cameras, that has not exactly been without its hitches. Last month, I was amused to read about an incident when Inverness Caledonian Thistle took on Ayr United, behind closed doors in a game that was understandably only available on pay per view live stream. Of course, instead of the staff multi-camera operation, we had a robot camera from Pixellot, the idea being that it would auto-track the action without any staff having to use it. However, it went horribly wrong, as the camera proceeded to follow the bald head of a linesman on the near side, rather than the ball. The play was on completely the opposite side of the park, so nothing much could be seen, because the focus was on the official’s rather shiny head.

That is a mere anecdote, but most of us would be much happier to leave behind the live streams and the pies on our couch, and to get back into the grounds, both from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view. I have made the point to the Minister before about the multiplier effect, and I know he gets it: this is not just about money spent on the game; it is the food in local cafés, the pints in nearby pubs and the passing trade for shops near the stadiums. Many clubs, such as Celtic football club in my constituency, rely heavily on match day income to operate, in particular in Scotland, where significantly more people attend matches per capita than anywhere else in Europe.

That brings me to the nub of the issue: in essence, matches are mass gatherings, which we know for good reason are currently prohibited due to covid-19. Let us not lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of a deadly second wave so that, on Saturday alone, some 125 people in England tragically lost their life as a result of this virus. My fear is that, by returning to football grounds now, we would inevitably see large queues congregating for pies during the 15-minute half-time window. Almost certainly, all of us would pay by cash in the concourse, not using contactless—as we talked about, people are handling notes and coins already handled by countless people, thereby spreading the virus. At quarter to 5 o’clock on a Saturday, when full-time whistles go right across the British isles, we face the spectre of hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of grounds and on to the public transport network.

Unfortunately, it is currently not possible or safe for fans to return to the majority of grounds in these islands. That said, a regionalised tiered approach in Scotland has seen some clubs welcome back some fans, such as the highland side Ross County, which has been able to welcome a maximum of 300 fans back to its 6,500-seater stadium, because of a low prevalence rate in the highlands.

As a fan, I have mixed feelings about that, not least because it means 300 season ticket holders are drawn in a ballot and some fans will inevitably lose out. That raises wider questions about equality for the match-day experience and consumer rights. I appreciate, however, that this is a difficult balancing act for the Government, and I do not envy the position Ministers find themselves in. However, as hon. Members have said, we know that ongoing financial support is needed to prevent clubs from falling into bankruptcy, a fate that sadly befell my own club in 2002.

The petition takes note of a return for French and German sports fans, but that is no longer the case. The Bundesliga will have to play without fans again, after the tentative return of spectators was cut short due to rising coronavirus infections in Germany. In France, a new lockdown allowing only essential travel outside the home will prevent fans from watching Ligue 1 and 2 matches. The evidence from France and Germany shows that the return of fans will take time. I understand that Ministers are in a difficult position with these issues, but I urge caution. I hope that the regionalised tiered approach, opening up steadily and safely where prevalence rates are low, might bear fruit until we get a vaccine.

The return, therefore, of mass gatherings of any size or scale must be done with extreme care. My colleagues in the Scottish Government are taking that approach, and when England moves back to a regionalised tier system, the Government might consider it. In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with football fans, as I long to hear the turnstile click behind me, walk up the stairs to my seat in the Jack Dalziel stand, and see the holy turf of New Broomfield again.