The door is "ajar" to the potential return of fans at sporting venues by Christmas, the Culture Secretary insisted on Thursday after advancements in rapid testing.
Oliver Dowden maintained the Prime Minister was considering the possibility despite Telegraph Sport disclosing this week how only two football clubs in the top four tiers have infection rates below 100 per 100,000.
It first emerged on Tuesday that Downing Street was considering a surprise plot from ministers to allow supporters back at Premier League and other elite sports. Mr Dowden spoke positively again about the return of spectators to venues by Christmas in an interview with Talksport radio.
“There is definitely a chance of it,” he said. “We are in close discussions with the centre of Government about what we could do as we go back into the tiering system. There’s a possibility in the lowest-risk areas to open the door ajar a little bit, start to prove in the lowest-risk areas that we could make this work then I’d love for us to be able to do that.”
Four figure crowds in low infection risk areas are seen in Whitehall as an immediate post-lockdown option to get grounds opened up for the first time in nine months.
Boris Johnson, who on Monday told MPs privately that reopening sports grounds was “a personal priority”, said during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday afternoon: “I understand the frustration over fans and we hope to get crowds back in the ground as soon as possible.” However, Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, played down the prospect of such an early return on a call with sport’s leaders.
Wth much of the country likely to be plunged into new tier four Covid-19 restrictions from Dec 2, public health experts also believe a New Year return is more likely.
Yet Mr Dowden maintained an upbeat assessment on Thursday, saying rapid testing would play a part in reopening venues. “I think there’s a real opportunity to incentivise people to take the Covid test by saying ‘if you take the Covid test, and you’re in the clear, then you can go safely into stadiums and watch matches’,” he added.
In the top four divisions only League One’s Ipswich and League Two’s Colchester have an infection-rate area below the 100 per 100,000 mark. Rapid testing has already been introduced at particularly high-risk areas and ministers are hopeful of them being widely available across the country within weeks.
The Government is keen to ease resentment in sport after arts venues such as the London Palladium, Albert Hall and O2 were given permission to sell tickets for up to 5,000 spectators last month. The Football Supporters’ Association said the policy contained "zero logic". "I accept people’s frustration at the inconsistency there," Mr Dowden told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last month.