Prem League and EFL clubs told to brace for wave of Omicron outbreaks

Prem League and EFL clubs told to brace for wave of Omicron outbreaks

December 10, 2021

Experts warn Premier League and EFL clubs to brace themselves for a wave of Omicron outbreaks, as the variant ‘whips through everyone’ in dressing rooms, celebrations and team coaches due to its increased transmissibility

  • Prof Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, has told Sportsmail the new variant is likely to ‘whip through’ clubs up and down country
  • Combination of Omicron’s increased transmission and rising rates in twenty-somethings, along with ability to cause super-spreader events, increases risk
  • Experts and football authorities are alarmed at reports of rapid spread at events
  • Tottenham and Leicester have already reported Covid outbreaks 
  • Government set to hold Cobra meeting over spread of Omicron across the UK 

Premier League and EFL clubs have been warned to brace themselves for a wave of Omicron infections, which will put players out of action and force postponements at clubs up and down the country

The highly transmissible nature of the new variant and the close proximity in which footballers live and work make more clusters almost inevitable, with the majority of clubs likely to be affected, an expert has told Sportsmail.

Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, believes teams and fixtures will be hugely disrupted by Omicron after examining data from South Africa and Europe.

‘The situation at Tottenham will probably play out in a number of clubs,’ said Professor Hunter. ‘I think it is going to be difficult for football.’

The Premier League and EFL have both written to their clubs urging them to tighten up their practices, introduce emergency measures and urging them to cancel Christmas parties, but their best efforts may be in vain.

The new variant looks set to pose a serious threat to the Christmas fixture calendar. 

The latest warnings over Omicron come as Tottenham’s Premier League clash against Brighton, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed due to the Covid outbreak within the Spurs camp. 

Premier League have ordered all top flight clubs to reimpose emergency covid measures to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the Christmas programme. Pictured: Mo Salah

The north London side also saw Thursday’s European Conference League match against Rennes called off and there remains concern that next week’s top-flight game against Leicester City may also have to be postponed.

The Foxes, meanwhile, were without seven players for their decisive Europa League clash with Napoli on Thursday, with their 3-2 defeat seeing them drop into the Europa Conference League.

And today, Norwich City manager, Dean Smith, said he is waiting on the results of Covid tests for several players ahead of their trip to Manchester United.

Concern over the variant extends well beyond football. Michael Gove will today hold a four-nation Cobra meeting over concerns around the spread of the Omicron variant.

Leaders are set to discuss the latest Covid-19 data and how to co-ordinate the response to the rising number of Omicron cases being detected in in the UK.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson confirmed the meeting, saying: ‘Given the ongoing situation with the Omicron variant, we think it’s a sensible time to have those discussions with the devolved administrations to further our ongoing coordination work.’ 

Meanwhile, football faces a challenge to stop the virus spreading within the sport. 

‘Clubs are likely to see more of these clusters that will mean they will not be able to play. You can go some way to reduce the risk but you probably cannot stop these things happening,’ said Professor Hunter.

‘I don’t know how many clubs will be affected, but it could well be the majority over the coming weeks.’

Football clubs and in particular players appear susceptible to Omicron, since the data suggests it is a lot more transmissible than previous variants, it is causing more super-spreader events and the rapid growth in infection is among people in their twenties, the expert told Sportsmail.

In Oslo, the capital of Norway, 70 out of 120 guests tested positive for Covid following a works Christmas party. The infection appears to have stemmed from two of the solar power company’s staff who had recently returned from South Africa. Around half of the infected people have subsequently screened positive for Omicron.

This and other events have alarmed experts and the EFL included a reference to the Oslo incident in its letter to clubs this week, which proposed a number of measures, including separating players and staff on coaches according to vaccination status.

Football clubs ‘are told to split players into double jabbed, boosted, previously infected and unvaccinated groups’ on team coaches as the EFL look to limit spread of Omicron variant

‘It is going to spread pretty quickly,’ Professor Hunter continued. ‘The age group where we see infections increasing at the moment is the twenty-somethings.

He added: ‘It is getting to the point if you have got people together in the same room or on the same coach and you have someone who is infected there is a good chance it will whip through everyone in the team.

‘Nothing is ever 100 per cent, but some initial data from clustering events [suggests] if you have an infectious person on the coach, by the time you get to where you are going the majority of people on the coach will have picked up Omicron.’

The expert said sitting in different parts of the bus is unlikely to help limit the spread.

The English Football League have reportedly issued new advice on coronavirus to 72 clubs

Official figures suggest about one per cent of Covid cases are caused by the Omicron variant in the UK, but they lag by one week, said Professor Hunter. He suggests the actual figure may be around six per cent.

Vaccination and previous infection may offer some protection to catching the new variant, but the expert said it is limited. But double vaccination plus a booster, or a previous infection, is thought to protect people, he added.

Professor Paul Hunter says football faces a difficult challenge from Omicron

Transmission on the pitch from one team to another remains unlikely, but the risk of passing on an infection would be greater in a team hug or goal celebration. However, if the players are sharing changing rooms and travel facilities then the risk may not be greatly elevated.

Professor Hunter said that because the variant is so infectious, once a club has been exposed it will be clear to resume playing after a few weeks.

And he urged staff and players to obtain vaccinations if they have not done so already. ‘The only sure way of reducing your risk is to get vaccinated,’ he added.

Newcastle United player Javier Manquillo has his Covid status checked at St James’ Park

The Premier League and EFL are alive to the increased risk of infection and transmission within clubs and have responded to it in a bid to prevent matches being postponed over the jam-packed festive period.

In the top flight, teams have been forced to abide by a stringent set of protocols since the return of football in June 2020, including social distancing and the use of PPE at training grounds.

Those requirements have slowly relaxed in recent months thanks to increasing vaccination rates among players.

But the Premier League has told all 20 teams that the long-standing emergency measures are now back in place.

Fans attending a Premier League game from next week will have to be ready to show their Covid vaccination status outside the stadium , under the Government’s Plan B

In the EFL, clubs have been told to segregate players into those who are doubled jabbed against coronavirus, boosted, previously infected and unvaccinated on team coaches to try to reduce possible transmission, according to The Telegraph.

The guidance also proposes goalkeepers should not train together to lessen the chance of becoming a ‘close contact’ should there be a positive Covid test and therefore reduce the likelihood of disruption.

Meanwhile, supporters at stadiums with a capacity of more than 10,000 will have to have proof of a double coronavirus vaccination or a negative lateral flow test to attend matches from Wednesday, under the government’s Plan B, to limit the spread of the virus.

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