Premier League expected to keep restrictions despite Boris Johnson abolishing Covid regulations

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The Premier League is planning to take a cautious approach to relaxing its Covid protocols despite Boris Johnson’s announcement that coronavirus regulations will be abolished.

While the Prime Minister is set to lift Covid restrictions from Thursday, ending nearly two years of restrictions, Sportsmail understands some safety measures at top flight stadiums and training grounds are likely to remain, such as Red Zones and regular testing of staff and players.

But coaches across the leagues are looking forward to having more players available for selection. Asymptomatic cases will not be automatically ruled out and their inclusion in match day squads and training will be a medical judgement.

The Premier League is expected to take a cautious approach to removing Covid restrictions

The Premier League is expected to take a cautious approach to removing Covid restrictions

In addition, unvaccinated players who have been in close contact with Covid cases will no longer need to isolate.

Prime Minister Johnson will lift the requirement to self-isolate after a positive later this week, instead he will urge people to act responsibly and prevent Covid spreading.

However, in football, every move will be carefully assessed as top flight clubs are concerned that a spike in cases now could still put the season at risk.

The league is already trying to shoe-horn 22 Covid call-offs into a packed match calendar and clubs fear a new spike in cases could be disastrous.

‘The more games that are postponed the less likely the season is to finish,’ said one top-flight club source. ‘There will be jitters and the Premier League will have to tread carefully. I would expect the league to be cautious. The last thing we want is for lots of positive cases to flood in.’

The Premier League and clubs have worked hard to keep the show on the road, moving to daily testing for players and staff, and introducing a raft of emergency measures, when the Omicron surge threatened to force a pause in the season.

A host of rules, including mandatory Covid passes, were introduced to protect top-flight ties

A host of rules, including mandatory Covid passes, were introduced to protect top-flight ties

Having weathered the storm, with weekly positive tests down from 103 at the end of December to just nine last week, the competition feels it is back on an even keel and no one will want to put that stability in doubt.

The top flight did relax its rules in recent weeks, removing the need to wear face coverings in indoor areas and limits on treatment time have been removed. Lateral flow testing for players and relevant club staff also reverted to twice weekly 

However, emergency measures agreed by the clubs are in place until February 28 and may well remain until then, when the clubs will have the opportunity to agree a reformed package. Even beyond the end of February, not all protocols will necessarily be lifted, since the priority is to complete the season.

Boris Johnson last night heralded an end to nearly two years of Covid curbs and restrictions

Boris Johnson last night heralded an end to nearly two years of Covid curbs and restrictions

Among the most likely changes will be relaxing social distancing rules in changing rooms at training grounds and at matches. Currently, teams often have to spread out across more than one room and change in different parts of the stadium in order to avoid mixing in the tunnel.

In addition, more press conferences will be held face-to-face and additional interview areas are expected to be made available internally.

However, there is anxiety around interfering with the so-called ‘red zone’ at stadiums, the area around the changing rooms, tunnel, pitch and dug outs which can only be accessed by players and core staff.

Prior to the Covid pandemic these areas could be populated by a wide range of staff, visitors, players’ partners, media and mascots. That is unlikely to return soon.

Burnley's match against Watford was one of 22 Covid-related postponements this season

Burnley’s match against Watford was one of 22 Covid-related postponements this season

‘It is a sanitised area,’ said one source. ‘That is what keeps everything safe.’

And the Premier League is expected to carry on testing in order to monitor the level of infection among players and staff.

Testing has provided a useful barometer of infection and has been used to guide the tightening and relaxation of the protocols as the pandemic has ebbed and flowed. At the peak, the top flight was conducting 15,000 tests per week.

‘I cannot imagine testing will fall to nothing,’ said another top flight source. ‘You need to be testing to know what impact relaxing other measures is having.’

With the abolition of Covid regulations by Government, clubs are expected to make their own decisions on the availability of players.

There will be a benefit with respect to unvaccinated players, who until now have had to isolate if they were deemed a close contact of somebody who tested positive for Covid. That will no longer be the case.

And those players who contract Covid will now be available to play and train, even if they are testing positive, if medical staff clear them to do so.

The head of one club’s medical department told Sportsmail that Covid will become like any other flu-type illness when staff must judge if a player is fit enough to play.

‘Isolation periods will come down,’ said the head of one club’s medical department. ‘A symptomatic player will be tested and sent to isolate but you could bring him back in based on a clinical judgement.

Premier League came under pressure to pause season during a large number of call-offs

Premier League came under pressure to pause season during a large number of call-offs

‘But you would never expose a player to playing with systemic flu symptoms, like a temperature, sweats or aches. We have never done that in the pre-Covid world.’

The relaxation of the rules is not expected to trigger a dramatic rise in Covid cases among players at football clubs, according to Professor Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia.

The expert in public health correctly predicted the far-reaching impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on football clubs. It spread quickly because of a combination of low vaccination rates, the close proximity of staff and the transmissibility of the virus.

However, after a slow start, vaccination rates among top flight footballers have increased significantly. The latest figures show that 80 per cent of players are fully vaccinated and more than 90 per cent are described as ‘on the vaccination journey’.

In addition, Omicron ripped through clubs meaning many players and staff have now been exposed to the virus, or had the vaccine, which will confer significant protection, said Prof Hunter.

‘Those teams where most people have been exposed to Omicron already do not have a lot to worry about until the back end of this calendar year [when immunity will begin to wane],’ added the expert.

In the EFL vaccination rates are lower. In December only 60 per cent of players had been double vaccinated.

The disruption caused by Covid was even more extensive than in the Premier League, with the Christmas period particularly hard hit. On Boxing Day alone 24 matches were called off.

The Football League no longer routinely tests players so the infection rate is unknown, but clubs still test when a player shows flu-like symptoms.

The north London derby was called of when Arsenal had just one Covid case in their squad

The north London derby was called of when Arsenal had just one Covid case in their squad

EFL clubs have told Sportsmail they are seeing significantly less Covid cases now than they were previously.

As far as fans are concerned, most people will not experience any difference to their recent experience of attending matches.

In January, the Government relaxed the rules on attendance at large stadiums so fans no longer needed to show proof of vaccination or previous infection to gain entry.

‘Nobody is saying there will not be transmission,’ said Prof Hunter. ‘But most people have some degree of immunity either from a vaccine or having had the virus.’

He said supporters could reduce the risk of exposure to the virus by taking their seats early and delaying their departure from the ground to miss the crowds, as well avoiding crowded concessions within the stadium.

However, the change in the rules will receive a mixed reception among some fans. 

‘Among our membership we have representation of the full spectrum of opinions on Covid,’ said Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association.

‘While many will be keen to return to normal as soon as possible, there are also those who are much more cautious. 

Ian Mather, chief executive of Cambridge United felt his club’s supporters and players had grown used to living with Covid.

‘We will continue to encourage people to be aware it is a problem and if they have symptoms they should stay away and that applies to playing staff as well,’ he said. 

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