Professional sport was plunged back into a now-familiar sense of uncertainty on Friday after the government’s decision to suspend spectator test events.
The news was relayed by Boris Johnson in a televised address. Shortly after the FA announced it was pausing plans to allow fans into Wembley for the Community Shield at the end of August, one of the more prestigious events to have been earmarked as a pilot. The St Leger Festival at Doncaster is another, with promoters saying they remain hopeful punters will be able to attend in September. If they cannot, however, the last chance of the Flat racing season recouping some of its lost money will be gone.
The pause on pilots, which has also affected plans to allow spectators into two county cricket matches this weekend, will be in place for a fortnight until 15 August. What happens after that, however, is unclear. The metrics by which the government would decide it was safe to resume are unknown even within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Commenting on the prime minister’s announcement, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, could only tweet his condolences. “Very disappointing news that with the rise in infection rates we cannot press ahead with sports pilots with fans this weekend,” he wrote. “I know the huge efforts cricket, snooker & horse racing have made to welcome fans back. We’ll keep working together on their safe return asap.”
For football the need to get supporters back into stadiums is pressing, but it is not yet immediate. The FA will hope that a government all-clear on 15 August would give them enough time to prepare for making Wembley a home for socially-distant spectating.
“The FA have offered to use the Community Shield at Wembley as a test event and are waiting to see if this is possible according to government guidelines,” an FA spokesperson said. “We, along with the rest of football, want fans to return to stadiums and grounds as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The Premier League and EFL hope to have fans back at league matches by October, a target confirmed earlier this week by the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston. A two-week pause in pilot events is not expected to impact on that timing as the Premier League had not anticipated staging trial events until pre-season, with many of those games likely to take place in September.