Football authorities in talks over plans for two-week 'circuit break'

Ministers are locked in talks with football authorities over plans to hold two-week ‘circuit break’ as doctors call for shutdown of leagues amid surge in Covid cases

  • Football could be halted for second time this season as positive Covid tests rise
  • Premier League clubs have held informal discussions about a fortnight’s break 
  • Matt Hancock says decision will be up to football authorities and Oliver Dowden
  • GP Wes Tensel, who is Rochdale’s club doctor, calls for the season to be halted
  • Government officials are privately eager to prevent a second sporting lockdown 

English football could grind to a halt for the second time this year after its authorities held talks with the Government amid a rising number of positive coronavirus tests.

Premier League clubs have had informal discussions about holding a fortnight’s break in the season in the hope the chaos will ease as the Covid-19 crisis intensifies.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted today that the decision on a ‘circuit breaker’ was entirely up to football authorities working with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

But practising GP Wes Tensel, who is also AFC Rochdale’s club doctor, has called for the Football League to see the ‘bigger picture’ and halt the current campaign.

Government officials are privately eager to prevent a second sporting lockdown after the first one in March but the situation is fluid as discussions continue.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (pictured outside Downing Street last month) is holding talks with football authorities amid the increasing number of positive coronavirus tests

Manchester United beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 last night at an empty Old Trafford

Asked about the situation, Newcastle United fan Mr Hancock told Sky News today: ‘I think it’s fantastic that we’ve been able to keep football going since the summer.

‘It’s so important and it’s absolutely a matter for the football authorities working with the Culture Secretary to get this right. 

Premier League Covid-19 tests results for the 2020-21 season 

Round 1: Aug 31-Sep 6 – 1,605 tested, with three testing positive.

Round 2: Sep 7-13 – 2,131 tested, with four testing positive.

Round 3: Sep 14-20- 1,574 tested, with three testing positive.

Round 4: Sep 21-27 – 1,595 tested, with 10 testing positive.

Round 5: Sep 28-Oct 4 – 1,587 tested, with nine testing positive.

Round 6: Oct 5-11 – 1,128 tested, with five testing positive.

Round 7: Oct 12-18 – 1,575 tested, with eight testing positive.

Round 8: Oct 19-25 – 1,609 tested, with two testing positive.

Round 9: Oct 26-Nov 1 – 1,446 tested, with four testing positive.

Round 10: Nov 2-8 – 1,646 tested, with four testing positive.

Round 11: Nov 9-15 – 1,207 tested, with 16 testing positive.

Round 12: Nov 16-22 – 1,530 tested, with eight testing positive.

Round 13: Nov 23-29 – 1,381 tested, with 10 testing positive.

Round 14: Nov 30-Dec 6 – 1,483 tested, with 14 testing positive.

Round 15: Dec 7-13 – 1,549 tested, with six testing positive.

Round 16: Dec 14-20 – 1,569 tested, with seven testing positive 

Round 17: Dec 21-27 – 1,479 tested, with 18 testing positive 

‘I am not going to get involved in that discussion. I know how seriously the football leagues take the need to keep people safe and how seriously they take the measures that are necessary and I know that they will be taking this decision very seriously as well.

‘But I also know just how great it is that we’ve got football on the tele and we’re managing to do that behind closed doors even in the teeth of this pandemic.’

As West Bromwich Albion boss Sam Allardyce backed the idea of a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’, it emerged that:

  • There are major concerns, particularly lower down the football pyramid, that a second stoppage is inevitable;
  • Premier League Covid enforcement inspectors have warned clubs to tighten training-ground protocols following a number of breaches reported in recent weeks;
  • Sheffield United and Fulham confirmed multiple positive tests as the top-flight returned 18 positive coronavirus results yesterday – the highest number so far;
  • Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl had to miss last night’s game against West Ham because he is self-isolating at home after a member of his household tested positive;
  • Tottenham v Fulham tonight could be postponed as the Cottagers are struggling with positive cases. 

The prospect of a second suspension of action is understood to have already been discussed by club officials. 

Dr Tensel believes serious consideration must be given to stopping the campaign, and warned football does not want to come down on the wrong side of history.

He said: ‘With everything that’s going on in 2020 and this massive global pandemic, we’re struggling to get on top of things – you can see the numbers are rising. People can’t go on holiday, they can’t do this, they can’t do that.

‘If we look back when our kids are at school and they’re doing history of what happened in the pandemic and they see they were still playing football, they were travelling around, it just doesn’t seem to me the wisest thing to be doing.

‘I just feel that, in the grand scheme of things, is football that important in the middle of a pandemic, when I’m seeing lots and lots of people dying with Covid? It doesn’t sit right.’ 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is a Newcastle United fan, told Sky News today that it was ‘fantastic that we’ve been able to keep football going since the summer’

Practising GP Wes Tensel, who is also AFC Rochdale’s club doctor, has called for the Football League to see the ‘bigger picture’ and halt the current campaign. 

Dale are the latest professional club outside the Premier League to suffer a Covid-19 outbreak in their camp over Christmas, with their next two games called off.

Premier League and EFL matches called off due to Covid this week 

MONDAY

PREMIER LEAGUE

Everton v Manchester City

TUESDAY 

CHAMPIONSHIP

Millwall v Watford 

LEAGUE ONE

Peterborough v Charlton Athletic

Accrington Stanley v Sunderland

Bristol Rovers v Portsmouth

Fleetwood Town v Doncaster Rovers

Hull City v Lincoln City

Rochdale v Crewe Alexandra

AFC Wimbledon v Ipswich Town

LEAGUE TWO

Bolton Wanderers v Morecambe  

Millwall, Rotherham United, Ipswich Town, Sunderland, Hull, Doncaster Rovers, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Morecambe have also been hit over the last week.

Dr Tensel’s comments echo the thoughts of Ipswich’s club physio Matt Byard who also said last week that a ‘circuit breaker’ was required after an outbreak of the new coronavirus strain within the team. 

One prominent source suggested lower-league sides are already preparing to shut their doors and expect clubs further up the football pyramid to follow in time. 

Dr Tensel has warned of consequences for football clubs beyond the pitch and believes a postponement of the season would be a sensible move.

‘This is my opinion as a doctor. Some people will disagree, some won’t, this is just my opinion based on what I have seen working in the NHS and at a football club,’ he said.

‘As a club we try to minimise the spread of Covid as much as possible, but we have heard about this new strain which is more transmissible, does it make sense for clubs to be travelling across tiers when other people are unable to see their relatives in another tier over Christmas?

‘People could only see their loved ones outside in a park, but a whole coach-load of footballers can go up and down the country as they wish.

‘That is my feeling as a doctor, as a football fan I don’t want it to stop. But I am trying to see the bigger picture. A lot of people have been affected this year, they have not been able to go on holiday and things, it must be a bit frustrating for them and they must ask, ‘Why are footballers allowed to go all over the place?’

‘If the government were to put us in another lockdown like we had with the very first one where it was just essential travel, then football should also stop as well.

‘If they carry on with tiers, the fact that everything the government have done so far the cases are still increasing, I would have thought football probably should be postponed.

COMMENT: Chaos will see this title win tainted by an asterisk 

By IAN HERBERT, Deputy Chief Sports Writer for the Daily Mail

Football’s pulling out all the stops to create the illusion that everything is normal. There’s the fake fan noise, pointless stadium announcers and even the odd bit of pre-match pyrotechnics.

But nothing is normal, of course, and as we plunge deeper into the current predicament the Premier League season is turning into organised chaos. This competition is becoming so inequitable that whoever wins the 2020-2021 edition must accept there will always be an asterisk next to their name.

Elite football demands a capacity to deliver in the eye of the storm — shutting out the noise to convert a penalty or pick a pass in a febrile, partisan atmosphere. No such capacity applies now.

Then there was the unfathomable decision to allow some clubs the benefit of fans and others none, depending on how grave the local Covid situation happened to be, shredding the principle of fairness which the Premier League is supposed to be based on.

You needed to be there, in the stadium, to appreciate just how much advantage 2,000 fans actually provided to Everton when they beat Arsenal before Christmas. The noise was so substantial that you wondered if there was any amplification. Either way it was a very big advantage. The chanting in the Liverpool v Tottenham live coverage a few days earlier also boomed out.

That particular piece of competitive imbalance — which should never have been permitted in the first place — is unlikely to be with us for much longer. But the new coronavirus strain has also brought a new strand of argument — about a team’s right to request a game be cancelled.

Everton’s unvarnished fury with Manchester City’s successful petition to get Monday’s match at Goodison scrapped carried a firm hint that they suspected a manipulation of the rules. That’s what an insistence on ‘full disclosure’ and clarity on ‘why this decision was taken’ — to quote their press release — actually means.

And strictly speaking, the guidance, when football began after the first lockdown, was that if a Premier League team had 14 fit players then a match should go ahead. But that advice was issued long before a new, more virulent strain of the virus was racing through the nation, affecting young more than old.

The words of Newcastle manager Steve Bruce — whose team are still shaken by a Covid outbreak earlier in the month when their match against Aston Villa was cancelled — demonstrate why that arbitrary number is now meaningless and why Premier League club should be entitled to close down their training ground and disappear from the fray.

‘I hope, for City’s sake, that they don’t go into double figures,’ Bruce said. ‘We are witnessing the after-effects.’

The chaos and levels of infection run so deep in Leagues One and Two, where testing is less incessant, that Rochdale club doctor Dr Wes Tensel yesterday called for the season to be suspended. The Premier League must be prepared for a potential shut-down, too. Figures released yesterday showed 18 positive tests among their clubs between December 21 and 27 — the highest since they started testing.

There will be resistance to any notion of a temporary suspension, of course. But the practical obstacles, including a summer European Championship tournament which allows minimal room for manoeuvre now, must be dismissed if the science suggests otherwise.

All that can be said with certainty about the five months ahead is that there will be uncertainties and inequalities and challenges, making the act of winning a football match more of a lottery than ever, before one team emerges as champions. Champions with an asterisk next to their name.

‘Footballers travelling around the country are not causing spikes in different tiers but they can still pass it on to their loved ones because the football bubble they are in bursts every time they go home. There are consequences outside of the football pitch.’

The EFL is investigating the circumstances of each club’s outbreak and could issue fines or points deductions if it finds its Covid-19 guidelines were broken.

Points could also be deducted if clubs refuse to play when the EFL say it is safe to do so, and Dr Tensel believes it is a possibility that some clubs are hiding the full nature of outbreaks from the governing body.

He said: ‘This is where Rochdale have been very transparent with the EFL and could have shot ourselves in the foot, but we felt it was important to be totally transparent.

‘I am surprised that other clubs who have had positive cases, there have been no spread. That could be because they have followed the guidance to the letter and it has worked – fair play, that is great – but it could also be some of these clubs felt, “Actually, if we start to tell the EFL it has spread then we are going to lose points”.

‘If they start to fine people or dock points some clubs at the bottom may think we are not going to say anything and then just carry on.’ 

Nine games across the Sky Bet Championship, League One and League Two yesterday were postponed because of the virus.

Rotherham boss Paul Warne said his side only played their match with Barnsley last night – which they lost 2-1 – to avoid a possible points deduction by the EFL. 

A number of Covid protocol violations have recently been identified by inspectors in the Premier League, who have the task of ensuring clubs comply with strict safety regulations.

Clubs have been issued with strict guidelines but there are concerns that the commitment to abide by these rules has relaxed over time.

The Premier League are now expected to double-down on clubs to ensure they follow all protocols to a tee and ensure as many fixtures can go ahead as possible. 

Clubs will also increase their testing of players and staff from once to twice a week from now on.

Allardyce, whose side lost 5-0 at home to Leeds United last night, said: ‘Everyone’s safety is more important than anything. When I hear this variant of the virus transmits 70 per cent quicker, we can only do the right thing.

‘I’m 66 and the last thing I need to do is catch Covid-19. Probably players will overcome it but it’s more difficult for someone like me so I’m very concerned for myself and football in general.

‘We had one positive case this week. The virus seems to be creeping around no matter how hard we try. If a circuit-breaker helps, let’s do it and let the season run a little longer when we get through it.’

The clubs are taking it upon themselves to warn playing staff not to compromise their own ‘bio-secure bubbles’ — they must not meet with friends and family away from the training ground.

However, Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer questioned the need for a break after his side’s late 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers last night.

Solskjaer insisted his club are successfully following the required protocols and added: ‘I can’t see the benefit in having a circuit breaker or whatever it is going to be called because when are we going to play the games?

‘We all know it’s so difficult this year but if you just stop more games I don’t think that’s going to make a big, big change.’

Pressure is likely to grow for action to be taken after both Sheffield United and Fulham were affected by new outbreaks of the virus.

Blades boss Chris Wilder revealed ahead of their match at Burnley that the club had seen ‘a couple’ of players and ‘four or five backroom staff’ test positive. 

Wilder’s starting XI was unaffected, with just one change from the previous match, Oliver Burke dropping to the bench, but he was only able to name seven of a possible nine substitutes.

Wilder said neither he nor the club were looking to have the game delayed.

‘It’s not an ideal situation but I don’t think we’re a club of one. It (the virus) is picking up and it’s running high at football clubs,’ he told SUTV.

‘We just notified the relevant authorities that we’ve had a situation at the football club. But I want to play football. That’s how it is, we’re not looking to get anything canned. We did the right thing as far as our responsibility to the Premier League and notified them regarding the players that are ill.’

Arsenal’s manager Mikel Arteta claps his hands in front of rows and rows of empty seats at the American Express Community Stadium during his side’s match against Brighton last night

Manchester City’s visit to Everton’s Goodison Park on Monday (pictured that afternoon) became the second Premier League game to be called off this season due to an outbreak

Manchester City’s visit to Everton on Monday became the second Premier League game to be called off this season due to an outbreak, after at least five positive cases were reported within Pep Guardiola’s squad.

Doctors in Covid hotspots say they will face ‘horrendous choices over those who live and die’ within DAYS, as London hospital staff triage patients queued up outside in ambulances 

Medics in Covid hotspots are just days away from having to make ‘horrendous choices’ over who they can treat and who is left to die, a consultant warned last night.

England’s hospitals are now busier than they were during the darkest days of the spring, with record coronavirus admissions forcing ambulances to wait outside crowded NHS facilities and many intensive care units operating well over their capacity.

It emerged certain London ICUs have asked major hospitals in Yorkshire, more than 150 miles to the north, if they will agree to take some patients.

With beds, staff and equipment all running low, consultant anaesthetist Dr Claudia Paoloni warned the situation was just days away from reaching the point where care would be rationed.

Dr Paoloni, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, told The Guardian: ‘Our NHS just doesn’t have the beds to cope. Some areas will be overwhelmed in days. If ventilation capacity is exceeded, horrendous choices will have to be made over those who live and die.’

She added that other life determining choices will also have to be made, including which patients to admit to intensive care and how long to continue treatments on patients who appear to be making no progress, if for example a patient with better chances of survival needs the haemodialysis machine they are using.

Leaked figures revealed that England’s critical care capacity is now running at over 100 per cent at a number of hospitals across London, the south east, and east, the Health Service Journal reports.

It is not known when patients will be transferred out of the capital, or if Yorkshire’s hospitals will agree to take them. NHS critical care patients are rarely transferred such long distances.

A senior intensive care source confirmed to HSJ that a lack of capacity in the Tier 4 capital had seen a number of requests for patients to be transferred to hospitals in Tier 3 Yorkshire. 

City are now undergoing three rounds of additional coronavirus testing in the hope of avoiding a second Premier League postponement in under a week.

Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus were already self-isolating before three further unnamed players returned positive tests in the hours before the Everton match.

Players underwent the first of three tests in the City Football Academy’s car park yesterday and are expected to discover how widely the virus has spread through the club today.

The full extent of that will become clearer after a robust schedule of four tests in seven days. It is understood that City are scheduled to hold two further rounds before Sunday’s planned trip to Chelsea.

The game at Stamford Bridge remains in severe doubt and having to rearrange another league fixture would represent a logistical nightmare — with City already two games behind some top-flight teams.

Newcastle, who are still grappling with the after-effects of the virus hitting their squad, only found out the true impact after three sets of tests.

Like Guardiola, Steve Bruce’s side initially had two players who contracted the virus.

But those figures subsequently soared well into double figures after the same re-testing process that City have embarked on.

City sources fear the mutant variant their players are believed to have contracted in London last week is more virulent than the strain at Newcastle.

Their training base, which has undergone a deep clean, will remain closed if any positives are forthcoming today.

Bruce has highlighted the fatigue issues his squad has endured after a Covid outbreak, with Allan Saint-Maximin still ‘weeks away’ from playing.

Defender Fabian Schar revealed the extent of the problems facing players, saying: ‘For 10 days I was feeling quite bad. I was in bed doing nothing and I felt very weak.

‘I needed some time to get over it and I didn’t expect to be on the pitch like I was on Boxing Day but I felt quite good to play.

‘I had one training session with the team and I spoke to the gaffer and he asked me and I said I just wanted to play again as soon as possible.’ 

Everton, who were furious when Monday’s game with City was called off, are still waiting for an explanation from the Premier League.

Other top-flight clubs are also understood to be keen to hear the clarification. 

Everton have told their fans with tickets for the match they will be refunded and given priority if they enter an upcoming ticket ballot.

There are fears that any more postponed matches will create scheduling chaos — particularly for those clubs still involved in European competition.

Aston Villa v Newcastle, originally scheduled for December 4, became the first Premier League match to be postponed due to coronavirus cases earlier this month. 

A Premier League statement yesterday read: ‘The PL can confirm that between Monday, December 21 and Sunday, December 27, 1,479 players and club staff were tested for Covid-19. Of these, there were 18 new positive tests.’

Positive tests reported by City on Monday were not included in the latest results.

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