Entertainment, Sports

Football supporters deserve better than being labelled ‘super-spreaders’ amid Omicron surge

On Monday morning, around 700,000 children in Scotland will descend on schools the length and breadth of the country as most kids will be back in classes after the Christmas holidays.

At roughly the same time each morning next week, they will walk, cycle, get lifts off parents and carers (a small number may even be qualified to drive themselves). A large portion will travel by public transport and school buses specifically put on for them. Then at about three in the afternoon this mass pilgrimage will occur again in reverse.

Schools, of course, have been dealing with the pandemic for almost two years and the effort from every member of staff who has helped to make classrooms as safe as possible for our children is immeasurable.

Before the pandemic struck, on an average weekend in the final full football season before Covid hit (2018-19), an average of 96,000 supporters attended Premiership matches alone per fixture card.

That’s 96,000 over the course of an entire weekend, across the length and breadth of the country, travelling, as all those schoolchildren will come Monday morning, on foot, in cars, on public transport or pre-arranged supporters’ coaches. Unlike the schoolkids, the fans travel to sit outdoors for about two hours as opposed to sitting together inside for much of the working day.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a father of school and nursery-age children, I’m not going to argue a false equivalence between the importance of schools for children and football for supporters. That’s not the point here. It’s the language that’s used to defend the decision to restrict attendance to 500 at football matches in the face of the Omicron surge in Scotland that is of concern.

Both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney have described football matches in this country as potential and actual “super-spreader” events. Notably, neither have ever addressed the twice-daily, five-days-per-week school run as such.

When it’s pointed out that football is played outdoors, while restrictions on numbers inside, for instance, indoor shopping malls have not been put in place, this is beaten away with the indoor usage of public transport, car-sharing, toilet facilities at stadiums, and the pint in the pub or bite to eat at a restaurant en route to the match.

With the exception of the half at the pub (hopefully), these points all line up directly with the average day at school for any of the hundreds of thousands attending each and every weekday.

Note, too, the disparity between a minority of schoolkids even having received one dose of Covid vaccine and the enforcement of the vaccine certificate scheme at football stadia since early December.

This means that virtually everyone attending a football match is completely up to date on vaccine dosages.

So if vaccines, as they say, are our route out of this mess, how does this position tally up with targeted restrictions on supporters attending football matches? How can the “super-spreader” label sit with this?

A more sensible reason, and one I might add that would sit far better with the vast majority of football fans who regularly attend matches, has been alluded to by politicians in recent weeks. That is the strain put on emergency services by, in particular, the six Premiership matches played over the course of a weekend. It should be noted here, too, that Scottish football clubs pay for this. In the 2017/18 season, clubs paid Police Scotland alone a combined £1.9m to help keep games safe.

But the emergency services are under severe pressure at the moment, either through staff contracting Covid themselves or in having to self-isolate as close contacts. The police, NHS, and all of our emergency services are operating at worryingly reduced staff levels. Let’s not forget public transport services are also being hit by staff absences.

So what’s the difference between the strain placed on services by schools and the strain placed on getting supporters to and from football grounds as safely as possible?

Well, for a start, schools, the police, the health service and all of the emergency services that keep us safe fall under the Scottish Government’s remit. Soon, you will be able to add Scotrail to that list.

Football matches are labelled “super-spreader” events, essentially imparting blame on a pub-going, beer-guzzling, toilet-cramming, super-spreading portion of the population. The inability for government-run services to cope as a reason for reduced attendances at matches therefore arrives as a sidenote.

Fans wishing to attend matches earlier in the season were essentially given an ultimatum: get vaxed or go home. They’ve done their part to alleviate the burden on all of our public services. Yet still they are told to stay home.

These curbs on football matches, which have not been replicated in England, for example, have not led to a significantly better picture in terms of Covid cases in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. 

While fans are refused the chance to sit out in the open and cheer on their teams, the real reasons behind their absence are generally kept under wraps.

There is the welcome suggestion that it will be business as usual for fans when the Premiership’s winter break ends later this month. But it’s hard to see past Scottish football bearing the brunt of more restrictions in future before this nightmare ends.

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