The Premier League is experiencing a new round of Covid-19 problems. The evidence is both anecdotal (the postponement of Tottenham’s match versus Brighton caught us all off guard) and statistical.
Between August 30 and November 21, 39 positive tests were recorded by Premier League clubs. They recorded 42 last week. Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, has warned the country that record-breaking rates of infections are on the way. Expect the same from the Premier League.
Covid, a matter of concern
The Premier League has previously written to its member teams, advising them to take “immediate steps,” such as increasing testing frequency (which could explain the jump in positive cases), observing social distancing, and wearing masks indoors. To minimise the spread of verified cases, players and staff must now conduct lateral flow tests immediately before entering the training ground.
It all feels a little like whistling into the wind, though. Premier League teams already had strict procedures in place, but the truth of a more transmissible variant is that football will never be able to preserve its bubble structure. No industry is impenetrable when the UK records 93k cases in a single day.
On Sunday, it was reported that an entire round of games, most likely the games scheduled between December 28 and December 30, could be postponed, so teams don’t have to play three times between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Until now, the league has considered postponement requests on a case-by-case basis, but the decision-making process has been vastly criticised.
The timing of certain game cancellations has also created annoyance, with Aston Villa’s match against Burnley being called off just over two hours before kick-off on Saturday.
At the virtual meeting for senior club representatives, all clubs are to be present. It’s expected that more manager and captain interviews will take place later this week.
Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, hopes that emergency procedures put in place during the last seven days can keep games going. New restrictions, such as requiring unvaccinated players to practise and travel separately to minimise virus transmission, are also being discussed.
Masters has written to clubs pushing players to obtain the vaccine and emphasising the league’s importance in finishing the season.
What is next?
It’s essential to conduct thorough testing, but the unavoidable result is matchday surprises and interruptions for both broadcasters and fans. The Premier League will understandably prioritise health, but it will also be concerned that suspending the league now, ahead of an expected Omicron wave in January, will make it challenging to begin and complete fixtures on schedule.
Even a minor ban might cause up to three match weeks (19-21) to be missed, with no clear timetable for rescheduling those 30 games. The number of time clubs spends in the Champions League and FA Cup in 2022 may determine how many gaps there are in the calendar. However, the season must end on May 22, and there are only two midweeks available between now and then that are free of matches.