Liverpool’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid and Cheltenham Festival ’caused increased suffering and death’, the scientist leading the UK’s largest Covid-19 tracking project has said. Data gathered from millions of volunteers found coronavirus ‘hotspots’ shortly after both sporting events held in March where thousands of spectators packed together despite the threat posed by coronavirus already evident across the world. While the government has said many factors could influence cases in a particular area, professor Tim Spector – who runs the Covid-19 Symptom Study at King’s College London – said rates of cases locally ‘increased several-fold’ following those two major events. Less than three months ago sport across the UK was continuing as normal, despite the impending threat. Spain had already introduced lockdown measures – closing schools and banning mass gatherings – when 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans flew into Liverpool, joining the 52,000-strong crowd at Anfield. Visit our live blog for the latest updates: Coronavirus news live On the day of the match – March 11 – the World Health Organisation officially declared coronavirus a pandemic. Despite this, Boris Johnson was still telling the public in early March that people should ‘as far as possible, go about business as usual’. Sports governing bodies in the UK were taking their cue from the Prime Minister, who himself watched the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales at Twickenham on March 7.
In Ireland, where St Patrick’s Day events had already been cancelled, they took a different approach. A forthcoming Six Nations match in Dublin had already been postponed, as had the Chinese Grand Prix and football matches in then-epicentre northern Italy. Just 24 hours before Cheltenham Festival opened its gates in Gloucestershire on March 10 to 250,000 spectators, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC: ‘There’s no reason for people not to attend such events or to cancel them at this stage.’ Prof Spector has now told the broadcaster, ‘people will have probably died prematurely’ because of the decision. BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme has seen data from the last week of March that shows Liverpool and Cheltenham were among the areas with the highest number of suspected cases. The figures, from the Covid-19 Symptom Study, show an estimated 5-6% of the population, aged 20 to 69, had symptoms in those two regions. The King’s College research draws on information uploaded by more than three million volunteers around the UK, who use a phone app to submit daily reports identifying whether they have any of the 15 symptoms associated with Covid-19.
It is not in any way connected to the government’s contact-tracing app, which is being trialled in the Isle of Wight. The Jockey Club has previously defended the decision to go ahead with Cheltenham, telling the Guardian on 2 April that it had followed ‘clear and ongoing guidance’ from the government and science experts. It added: ‘We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event, including hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers and extra wash basins.’ In Liverpool a day after Cheltenham opened, around 3,000 visiting fans were allowed to mingle in bars and restaurants before the Champions League game, despite the fact Madrid was the epicentre of the outbreak in Spain, and at that point accounted for almost half of the country’s confirmed cases. Liverpool supporter Joel Rookwood, who has been ill for eight weeks, believes he caught coronavirus at the match, telling the BBC: ‘The celebrations were some of the most physical that I’ve experienced. People were jumping all over each other.’ Prof Spector said: ‘I think sporting events should have been shut down at least a week earlier because they’ll have caused increased suffering and death that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.’ In a statement, the government said: ‘There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in a particular area, including population density, age, general health, and the position of an area on the pandemic curve.’