British Horseracing Authority officials feared they had missed out on a coronavirus update from the Sports Minister in late February with the Cheltenham Festival less than a fortnight away, the PA news agency has discovered.
Emails between the BHA and officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) obtained under a Freedom of Information request by PA show the sports governing body was concerned it had been omitted from calls made by the minister, Nigel Huddleston, on February 26.
The four-day Festival was, at that stage, one of the largest mass gatherings on the immediate horizon. Earlier in February Huddleston had been invited to attend Gold Cup day on March 13, though he withdrew on March 5.
The Festival was controversially allowed to go ahead, with an aggregate attendance of 250,000.
PA’s investigation shows BHA staff were clearly concerned they were not being kept in the loop after learning that calls had taken place with the Football Association and the England and Wales Cricket Board.
A message from a BHA official on the morning of February 27 to an official at DCMS read: “I understand that the Minister for Sport held discussions in person/by call yesterday with some sports governing bodies (eg FA and ECB).
“I got a readout but would not have been guaranteed to.
“It would therefore be greatly appreciated if BHA could join these calls also when they are next held given the proximity of Cheltenham and Aintree, and the measures we are taking across the industry to contain any outbreak.
“If you can help get us on the list for (the) next call should it happen that would be a big help.”
The names of the correspondents were redacted.
DCMS responded to say that the minister was speaking to stakeholders and added: “I have suggested that the BHA be called.”
However, the Government official added that it “may not be today (February 27)” because of the minister’s existing commitments.
Ultimately, the emails show a meeting was arranged for the afternoon of February 27.
DCMS sources insist the BHA was always on the minister’s call list. The BHA is understood to have received assurances shortly after its initial chaser email that it would have received a call without prompting DCMS.
It is understood the February 26 calls did not involve a large group of governing bodies with the BHA missed out, but instead were the first in a series of ‘individual, informal’ calls Huddleston made.
Huddleston did not ultimately attend the Festival, and nor did Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden who was also invited.
The BHA official, in thanking DCMS for arranging the call, said: “I understand there are lots of stakeholders for DCMS in particular to deal with, and a lot of the events are higher in profile.”
BHA told PA in a statement: “These emails were part of the BHA’s ongoing dialogue with DCMS.
“The BHA emailed Government to check that we were part of their plans for calls and briefings, which DCMS confirmed that we were.
“We have held constructive and open dialogue with DCMS throughout the period in question, and subsequently.”
DCMS declined to comment.
Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, criticised the decision to allow the Festival to go ahead back in April, saying it was “the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus”.
The Jockey Club insisted it complied with Government guidance in allowing the 2020 Cheltenham Festival to go ahead.