Lancashire Football Association has today (6 December 2020) issued a statement, following on from the open letter penned by CEO Simon Gerrard – published on 4 December 2020 – which communicated the decision to suspend grassroots football activity in eight Local Authority areas until January 2021.
This decision was taken under the professional recommendation of Public Health for Lancashire, Public Health for Blackburn and Darwen, Public Health England and the Local Resilience Forum (LRF) in Lancashire, which identifies potential risks and produces emergency plans to prevent or mitigate the impact of any incident on the local communities.
Within the letter issued on Friday, it was explained that the information and statistics that we have acted on had been provided by and in consultation with Public Health for Lancashire, Lancashire County Council, Public Health for Blackburn and Darwen and Public Health England, and would be shared as soon as possible.
However, minimising the risk of infection spread from the upcoming games involving 27,000 players and in excess of 45,000 total people when adding in coaches, parents and grandparents over the forthcoming weekend, it was deemed as a priority to protect the East Lancashire community over the Christmas period and act swiftly.
The rising infection rates in East Lancashire, combined with the expected volume of participants, has brought football post-November lockdown into the focus of Lancashire Public Health Authorities as a high-risk activity. As a leader of our local football community, who prioritise the health and safety of all its participants and wider community, we believe we have both a moral and ethical necessity to follow the proposals presented to us by the medical and disease control experts.
We applaud your support of these frustrating and untimely measures and are proud of the sacrifice and social responsibility our great footballing community display to protect those vulnerable in our communities.
Based on ONS North West data and local experience of managing outbreaks in children, Public Health England estimates that up to 1 in every 33 people could be carrying COVID-19 without symptoms in the East Lancashire areas.
Football, even outdoors, still involves an element of close contact and heavy breathing, heightening risk. Although presently not available, testing of players is an area being explored collaboratively between Lancashire FA and Public Health to enable safer football activity, and we will update you on this when we are in a position to do so.
The infection rate for children without symptoms is considerably higher than in adults. In one recent local outbreak, children without symptoms outnumbered those with symptoms by 6 to 1, as informed by Public Health England.
Local assessment, informed by Public Health England, identified 1 child in every 3 teams could be at a higher risk of passing COVID-19 on, due to not showing symptoms, and with 1 child also eligible to play for up to 3 teams, this can increase the risk dramatically. This is especially the case in East Lancashire districts, where levels of infection in school-aged children are high.
As per Public Health Lancashire’s reiteration to Lancashire FA, it is a key central government objective that young people remain in school and are educated, and mitigating extra layers of risk in a locality prioritises this outcome. Additionally, there is strong correlation between increases in infection rates in children and subsequent increases in infection rates for the 60+ age groups, with most infection stemming from the home setting, and children catching COVID-19 more likely to pass this on to their household members. COVID-19 cases in this older age group have a greater likelihood of being admitted to hospital and have much poorer health outcomes than seen in younger people.
Given the increasing incidence in some districts involving younger age groups, we jointly concluded that, in order to minimise disruption to schools, it would be sensible to pause organised matches in selected districts across East and Central Lancashire until the New Year.
- Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council's Director of Public Health
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council's Director of Public Health, said: "I know that this news has been disappointing for many people, but it is important that we contain the spread of coronavirus, especially as we go into the Christmas period when more households will be mixing.
“We have been in discussion with the Lancashire FA and Public Health England to understand the current situation involving approximately 900 teams and around 27,000 players.
"Given the increasing incidence in some districts involving younger age groups, we jointly concluded that, in order to minimise disruption to schools, it would be sensible to pause organised matches in selected districts across East and Central Lancashire until the New Year.
"Exercise certainly remains really important for people. People are still encouraged to go with their households to parks and exercise in other ways.
"This is a short-term measure and will be reviewed carefully. We aren't far from getting more testing rolled out and vaccines becoming available. By working together as a team, we can all help to protect each other."
Public Health in Lancashire are working with the Lancashire FA and local schools to look at future plans for testing, and are working with our local sports partnership to assess the risk for other sports which include close contact.
Prof Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health and Wellbeing for Blackburn with Darwen Council, said: “Whilst the rates for COVID-19 in Blackburn with Darwen have been coming down rapidly during most of the lockdown, we have seen a significant rise in rates again in the 0-30 year old age groups over the last week.
"In order to minimise the risk of household transmission over the five day seasonal relaxation of the COVID rules, we need to take all the measures we can to avoid entering the 23-27th December period with rising rates. We hope to work closely with Lancashire FA over the coming weeks to see how we can open up grassroots football as soon as possible in the New Year.”
Lancashire FA would also like to take this opportunity to explain the time for the timing of the announcement made on Friday evening. We fully understand that to be notified of such a decision at 6.00pm, the night before many matches were to be played and when children were excited to be returning to play, is far from what is expected of us. Unfortunately, the timing of the release was dictated by the timing of both the escalation of our on-going discussions late Thursday afternoon and into Friday with Lancashire County Council and other parties, and the imminent weekend fixtures.
We would like to emphasise that once the final decision had been made, it was communicated as soon as it possibly could have been.
Whilst the rates for COVID-19 in Blackburn with Darwen have been coming down rapidly during most of the lockdown, we have seen a significant rise in rates again in the 0-30 year old age groups over the last week.
- Prof Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health and Wellbeing for Blackburn with Darwen Council
Lancashire FA, like the local grassroots community, received The FA and Government guidance late on Tuesday 1 December evening, providing just three days to review the status of COVID-19 within the entire county, which is made up of 19 Local Authorities, and had just two days to conduct the lengthy and complex conversations with our partners regarding the eight affected authorities with rising rates of infection.
Lancashire FA also understands that, because of the pressing nature of this decision, it was communicated without the level of detail and supporting facts that it deserved. We would like to thank Lancashire County Council, Public Health for Lancashire and Public Health for Blackburn and Darwen for enabling this information to be published today.
Lancashire FA fully understands and appreciates that this decision has been met with frustration, disappointment and anger. As the local governing body for the game within our county, nothing would give us greater pleasure than to enable everybody to play the game we all love.
However, whilst we understand these feelings and share in the disappointment, Lancashire FA is saddened to have witnessed the level of abusive messages that have been directed at our Chief Executive Officer, Simon Gerrard, following the publication of his open letter. Simon’s intention to write personally to stakeholders to explain the decision, albeit without the level of detail all parties agree was needed, was done so in good faith, under professional, medical disease control advice, and out of the care and wellbeing of our grassroots community, putting the physical health of all those involved in football, including their extended families and loved ones, front and centre of decision-making, and the nature of the abusive posts has been unacceptable. As a result, he will not be engaging in individual dialogue on this matter.
Lancashire FA implores all within the eight Local Authorities to respect the decision made. Please keep everybody safe, so that we can enjoy the festive season and ensure that we’re in a strong position to return to grassroots football in early 2021.