Sport pilot events in England scheduled for the rest of September could be limited to 1,000 spectators as coronavirus restrictions are tightened nationwide.
Officials from Doncaster racecourse announced that following Wednesday’s trial with crowds at the St Leger Festival, the remainder of the meeting will take place behind closed doors.
It comes as the government moved to ban gatherings of more than six people in England from Monday in response to a rise in Covid-19 cases to levels last seen during the national lockdown.
The St Leger was one of a number of events confirmed as pilot events for spectators back on August 26, in the lead-up to a planned wider return of sports spectators on a socially-distanced basis from October 1.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined changes at a Downing Street news conference, where he was joined by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser.
It is understood that pilot events which have already been arranged to test the safe return of spectators will be limited to a maximum of 1,000 people with social distancing measures in place.
While organised team sport will proceed, following the recent increase in infections, plans for the anticipated return of fans to grounds from the start of October will be reviewed, as will those for attending conferences.
Mr Johnson said: “At the present time we must also I am afraid revise plans to pilot larger audiences in venues later this month and review our intention to return audiences to stadiums and conference centres from October 1.
“But that doesn’t mean we are going to scrap the programme entirely, we are just going to have to review it and abridge it and the Culture Secretary will say more about that shortly.”
Following the Prime Minister’s press conference, Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, posted a statement on Twitter maintaining the government were continuing to “plan for the best”, but also stressing no firm decisions had yet been made.
“Further to the PM’s announcement we are reviewing the list of proposed sports pilots ahead of 1 Oct, in light of the increased number of cases. Details of changes will be announced shortly,” Dowden said on Twitter.
“We are keeping under review further easements proposed from 1 Oct but no changes have been announced today – and we continue to plan for the best.
“As I said on Sunday and the PM confirmed today, work continues round the clock on the moonshot project with the ambition of having audiences back much closer to normal by Christmas.”
Today’s racing was the first to allow in spectators since March.
Other scheduled pilot events are a Women’s Super League football match between West Ham and Arsenal on Saturday, football’s non-league finals day on September 27, race meetings at Warwick and Newmarket on September 21 and 24 respectively, a basketball exhibition match in Newcastle on September 18 and a speedway event in Ipswich on September 26.
The Premier League intends to work with the government towards getting crowds back into top-flight football games as soon as possible.
Chief executive Richard Masters told Sky Sports News: “We are ready, willing and able to be ambitious with our testing as soon as we have permission to open the turnstiles.
“Whether it is on October 1 or soon afterwards, we’ll do so with gusto using the current guidelines – it is on average around one quarter full in Premier League stadiums. That will be a start.
“We want to work with government to put in ambitious testing programmes to prove that it is safe to move beyond those social distance guidelines as soon as possible.”
Masters has warned of the financial impact of games continuing to be played behind closed doors for a long period of time.
He added: “With every match round that goes by without fans in the stadiums there are significant financial implications for all clubs – not just in the Premier League but throughout the pyramid. You can’t get away from that.
“We want to work with government. We understand September is a big month with the return of schools and universities and more people returning to work.
“It is important that gets done and gets done safely. Hopefully sport can follow swiftly.”