PLAYING WITH THE CORONAVIRUS
At the same time as our political leaders were telling us that we need to learn to live with the virus, the Football Association was setting out their guidance on how we would be able to play football whilst Covid was still with us. Taking a lead from the Governments move into Step 4 on July 19th, the FA’s National League System Club guidance echoed the news that there were no longer any limitations on the number of people who can meet, and the one-meter rule was now a thing of the past. However, like the rest of society, the footballing public was urged to move ahead with caution. Face coverings are no longer required but advised and whilst changing rooms can be used, Clubs are urged to avoid “participants being in a crowded area for a prolonged time”.
But as society opens and schools and universities return, what can non-league football hope to achieve to keep its participants safe, when there is so much potential for work and leisure activities to spread the virus and jeopardise fixtures?
“The evidence is very clear that outdoor spaces are safer than indoors,” Prof Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer has consistently advised. “From the data we have looked at, and the work that has been done on back to play protocols, the risk of playing outdoor sport is extraordinarily low,” said Professor Mike Weed of Canterbury Christ Church University, in March this year. So it’s reasonable to conclude that watching football outside and playing football outside are both relatively safe things to do.
The critical challenge faced by the non-league game, in terms of virus transmission, remains the indoor settings, the clubhouses and the changing rooms. In terms of spectators, clubhouses are no more dangerous than your local pub. However, a study by the University of Portsmouth showing that non-regular pub-goers ‘might never return after lockdown easing’, suggests that clubhouses might not hold the same appeal, post-pandemic, as they once did.
Attendances at non-league games show that spectators are prepared to take their chances, but what about the risks posed to players, coaches and match officials? In many respects these are the groups that can bear the greatest risk, because of their age and good health, but they are also the groups currently working their way through the vaccination system, with many yet to have their second dose. Clubs can play a crucial role in demonstrating good practise, in the same way that workplaces are being closely scrutinised in how they safeguard their employees and customers.
The FA’s guidance wants Clubs to promote the use of masks in crowded indoor settings, as well as suggesting the implementation of a testing policy for players and staff, 48 hours prior to any fixture. A study undertaken by Cognisant Research with 13 Western League players around Christmas 2021, highlighted the importance of the managers role in players matchday routines and whilst Club Chairman and Covid Officers can have important parts to play, it’s essential for all three to be working together to reinforce the importance in adhering to matchday Covid protocols, designed to keep players safe.
Football is no different to any other aspect of society in that spectators and participants demonstrate a spectrum of different attitudes towards Covid, from genuine concern about the impact of the virus to a belief that it simply nothing to worry about. That is why it’s important influencers like Club Officials, coaches and senior players to be proactive in ensuring that everyone in the game is behaving responsibly. One of the key challenges identified by the Cognisant study was the contradictory nature of some of the Governments Covid advice. The idea that you can mark a player at a corner, but not share a car with them after the game, or limit who goes into a changing room, only to share a crowded bar or nightclub with the very same teammates.
That is why it’s important to remember that someone else is making these rules and the FA and the Clubs are doing their best to enforce them. Clubs looking to maintain Covid protocols should facilitate an open discussion on the measures they wish to maintain, allowing players to discuss what they consider to be reasonable and providing them with an opportunity to buy-in to a common approach, even if they may have personal reservations concerning their validity.
The future of the 2021/22 football season still hangs in the balance, with concerns about a winter surge, not to mention any fixture disruption caused by the British weather. We can all do our bit to help minimise the spread of the virus and football is no different. Spectators, coaches and players all have a part to play in keeping our beautiful going each week, this is a challenge that unites us all, but we will only succeed if we work together.
This article has been supplied by The Toolstation League