Plans to allow the phased return of fans to sporting venues in England from October 1 will be put on hold due to the sharp rise in coronavirus cases, ministers said on Tuesday.
A number of pilot test events, in which capacities have been capped at 1,000, have taken place and it was hoped venues would be allowed to welcome more spectators from the start of next month.
But Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said a “mass reopening” would not be appropriate at the current time, dealing a devastating blow to sports bodies struggling with the financial fallout of Covid-19.
“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning — it wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans,” Gove told the BBC.
“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, get more people back.”
Professional sport, including the Premier League and Test cricket, has largely been played behind closed doors since it returned following the coronavirus shutdown earlier this year.
Sports chiefs have warned of crippling losses due to the loss of income from gate receipts and hospitality.
The leaders of more than 100 sports bodies have reportedly written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for emergency funding, warning of “a lost generation of activity”.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters earlier this month warned it was “critical” to get fans back into stadiums soon, with clubs facing enormous losses.
Plans to host 1,000-capacity crowds at four Super League fixtures next week now look set to be scrapped.
“It’s clearly very disappointing,” RFL (Rugby Football League) chief executive Ralph Rimmer told the BBC. “We spoke with the secretary of state last week who was very supportive in developing a road map back to full crowds and the pilot schemes were the first step in that.
“The push on the 1,000 crowds would be disappointing if that was to be pushed backwards.”
Julian Knight, who chairs the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, expressed his concern at the announcement from Gove.
“If we don’t find a route map with smart solutions to allow sports and live events to gradually reopen, we risk decimation of our sporting and cultural infrastructure,” he wrote on Twitter.