Government under pressure to reopen grounds on same date as shopping centres and pub gardens

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The Government is to come under pressure from sports to bring forward the return of fans in line with the April 12 reopening of pub gardens and shopping centres.

Surrey County Cricket Club and two Football League clubs, speaking on condition of anonymity, are among those urging ministers to show flexibility over the scheduled May 17 allowance for 10,000 fans.

Whitehall is drawing up plans for crowd pilots to take place before that date, but senior sporting figures say there are unlikely to be more than 15 test events across the sport and leisure industry.

Richard Gould, chief executive at Surrey, is among those calling for small numbers of fans to be allowed in outdoor venues when shops, restaurant gardens, zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas reopen.

“We are going to inquire if we can get some crowds in from April 12 onwards,” he told Telegraph Sport. “Given the likes of the Bullring and Westfield [shopping centres] will be opening, we’re going to be questioning whether or not a County Championship crowd could gather outside in relatively small numbers. You can imagine, with 10 per cent capacity, 2,500 people for the Championship would be outstanding. If you’ve got 150,000 people a day in the Westfield, having a couple of thousand fans, sitting outside of the Oval doesn’t doesn’t seem incongruous or inconsistent.”

There is also concern in the EFL that the current May 17 reopening for stadiums is too late for clubs to recoup any matchday revenue for clubs until the start of next season.

Telegraph Sport disclosed last week how Championship clubs already fear a £100 million-plus rescue package loan from the Treasury could be delayed until the summer.

“We’re being pushed to the brink — getting in 5,000 for a couple of weeks at the end of April would help,” a Championship executive said on Saturday, as he called on the EFL to pressure Government to bring forward its May 17 plan.

An EFL spokeswoman has already committed to continuing talks with Government, with the Carabao Cup final on April 25 understood to be a potential Wembley crowd testing event.

“As has been our approach throughout the pandemic, the EFL wants to see supporters back in our stadia as soon as it is safe to do so and we will continue to work with clubs, DCMS, the SGSA and local authorities to this end,” a spokeswoman said.  

With the EFL and Government on a separate collision course over clauses limiting bonuses and pay rises, Championship clubs discussed the situation on Wednesday and it is understood that any agreement on the loan is still at least two months away.

Whitehall insiders say no plans had been made on which venues would be used for pilots, but sources confirmed technology such as vaccine passports  and 30-minute lateral flow tests outside venues will be explored to ramp up crowd numbers.

Lancashire Cricket Club and at least one Premier League team have also expressed interest in April pilots, which will see Liverpool University research fed into ministers’ “scientific Events Research Programme” ahead of rules being relaxed.

The hope is that sports will use the scheduled May 17 return of 10,000 fans as just a stepping stone towards rapidly increasing numbers beyond June 21.

The roadmap announced on Monday allows for the prospect of crowd numbers being scaled up dramatically by the time England play Czech Republic in their final Euro 2020 group match on June 22.

Ministers and public health experts played down the likelihood of 90,000 being inside Wembley by then, but Lancashire announced they were hoping to have a full Old Trafford for the T20 Blast against Worcestershire on July 1.

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