The number of positive COVID-19 tests in the Premier League is heading in the wrong direction. Alarmingly so, actually. In the most recent two rounds of testing, 40 cases were discovered from 2,295 total tests. That’s a new per-testing-period high. So far this season, four matches have been postponed because of coronavirus outbreaks, with three of those coming in the last week — Manchester City vs. Everton, Fulham vs. Tottenham, and Fulham vs. Burnley.
The recent postponements and today’s announcement come alongside the third national lockdown in England. The lockdown comes as a response to the new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 that is running rampant in the UK spiking case numbers and straining medical resources. As of Monday, January 4th, people in England have been ordered to stay home until at least February 15th, with exceptions, of course.
But the Premier League will keep playing.
As has more or less been the case since Project Restart, “elite sport” is exempt from the majority of the restrictions in place aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Yes, there are both Premier League and internal protocols for the players, staff, and clubs. They have rules to follow. But as we’ve seen, compliance has not been perfect.
Arsenal centerback Gabriel Magalhaes is among those positive tests from the most recent batch, although it is not clear how or where he contracted the virus. Presumably he and the club have an idea, and the optics of him posting an Instagram story of a birthday gathering right before testing positive aren’t great. Other examples of players not adhering to protocols include Benjamin Mendy partying on NYE and Gio Lo Celso, Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilón, and Miguel Lanzini having a Christmas Party.
For a brief period, there were reports suggesting that the Premier League might take a two-week, cooling-down break to attempt to get the positive tests among players and staff under control. But the league quickly refuted those reports.
Reports: “The Premier League is considering taking a break for a responsible, sensible, public health and player safety reason.”
Premier League: “HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT?”
As has been my go-to line about continuing to play - I don’t have the answer. It’s an extremely complicated and difficult question. But it feels like we aren’t even having the discussions we should be about the merits, drawbacks, risks, and how is voluntarily accepting them versus having risks imposed on them, which is something we should be doing as sports fans and a society writ large.
As cases continue to rise, the scale moves ever-close to “yeah, we probably shouldn’t be playing right now,” at least in my mind. The FA Cup 3rd round seems particularly fraught, at least to me. The lower division clubs have not been testing regularly (or at all, in most cases). There have been 12 EFL matches postponed in the past week. The FA has mandated that all clubs playing in the 3rd round have their players tested ahead of playing their fixtures, but I’m still concerned.
It seems to me that if we are to continue, we need to ask more of the Premier League and of the players. Being excepted from the lockdown rules is a privilege, and it should be treated as such. It shouldn’t be down to the clubs to fine or suspend players who break protocol, the Premier League should be handling it. Fine the clubs and suspend the players, even if they test negative.
I could write thousands of words about why sport figures should or shouldn’t be role models, but right now, we need the players and the coaches to step up. Use the older coaches who are in the vaccine priority groups as part of the campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated. Encourage the players to use their vast, influential social media platforms to depict themselves “doing the right thing” for public health and safety. We’re all in this together, and it’s going to take all of us to push to the finish. I can’t believe I still have to write that sentence 10 months in.