The Premier League is in the midst of a significant COVID-19 outbreak. This past weekend, 6 of 10 fixtures were postponed because of the number of positive tests at one or both clubs scheduled to play. The league held an emergency meeting earlier today (Monday) to discuss options for trying to control the spread among clubs, including whether to pause the season for a week or two (or longer) to allow players to isolate / quarantine. The league decided to continue matches as scheduled.
Per reports, both Arsenal and Liverpool were among the clubs that spoke in favor of some sort of pause in the schedule. The Gunners have confirmed that both Pablo Mari and Sambi Lokonga tested positive for COVID and that some number of staff have as well. My feeling (and it’s just that, a feeling from reading between the lines) is that Arsenal, while not at the vaccination levels of Wolves, Brentford, Leeds, and Liverpool, have a comparatively high vaccination rate.
Coming out of the all-clubs meeting, the league (finally) set out specific rules for when matches will be postponed because of COVID positives. Players and staff are now being tested daily using lateral flow tests for training availability and are tested the day before a match as well. The Daily Mail reports that the Premier League hopes to “incentivize vaccination among players with new measures” but does not (or cannot because there isn’t any additional detail) on what those measure might be.
The league announced that 77% of players have received two vaccine doses. 92% of players and staff have received one, two, or three doses. 84% of players are “on the vaccination journey” (whatever that means - I’m guessing ‘have gotten one dose’). And that 16% of players have not received a single dose. The league also announced that they would publicly update those numbers at the start of each month going forward. The numbers in the Premier League are trending in the right direction (the previous figure was 68% at two doses) and are ahead of the vaccination numbers in the corresponding age group in the U.K., but they lag behind other leagues in Europe, some of which have nearly reached 100% player vaccination. As has been shown time and again, the vaccines work and significantly reduced the risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19.
The new guidelines state that as long as a club has 13 outfield players and a keeper available, they will not be granted a postponement. Additionally, for clubs who can’t get to 13 first team players, “appropriately experienced U21 players” — any player that has started a first team match this season or last for the current or previous club — can / will be used to meet the requirement.
The league has also told clubs that they may use an independent medical evaluator to confirm injury status should a club claim they cannot reach the threshold because of injuries. Basically, it was a warning to clubs not to try to skirt the availability rules through bogus injury claims.
The Premier League has asked clubs to reschedule non-first team matches so as to ensure that U21 players are available to meet the counts as need be and has said that U21s will be deemed eligible even if they have played in a non-first team match a short time before a Premier League fixture. The league has told clubs that they will not consider “subjective factors” like player experience or positional availability (outside of keeper) in determining whether a match will be played. If you can make the required numbers, you’ll play.
The decision seems based in large part on the logic that rescheduling the post-Boxing day fixtures will do little to help control the spread of COVID-19 among players and staff. That it’s not enough time and that if you don’t push the remaining unvaccinated players to get the jab, the league will find itself in a similar position down the road. There doesn’t seem to have been much serious consideration of any plan that postponed more than one set of fixtures.
The Premier League seems determined to push through the current COVID-19 outbreak among clubs and whatever surge the omicron variant brings. Of course, that could change at a moment’s notice should the situation get worse. Also, today’s decision was made by the Premier League. The U.K. government could, at any point, decide that matches must go to reduced capacity or behind closed doors again. And with rumors that the U.K. may elevate the COVID-restrictions after Christmas, the Premier League may have to revisit their decision as soon as next week.
The Premier League says the health and wellbeing of all involved parties remains the priority in its decision-making. I hope that’s true and not just window-dressing.