Coronavirus: Ross to head taskforce on sports fans’ mass return

A taskforce aimed at accelerating sports fans’ mass return to stadia even as more locations across the UK face tighter coronavirus restrictions is to be spearheaded by David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse co-founder.

Sky News has learnt that the Sports Technology Innovation Group (STIG) has picked a panel of business and technology experts to work on technology-based solutions that could include a digital self-certification regime that would enable supporters to resume watching their favourite teams and sports.

Insiders said on Thursday that the group’s members would include Gary Hoffman, the former banker who now chairs the Premier League; and Natalie Ceeney, who chairs the tech-focused lobbying group Innovate Finance and is vice chair of Sport England.

Edward Wray, a co-founder of Betfair, is also understood to have been invited to join, while Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, will also be a member, the sources added.

Mr Ross is a well-known figure in the arts and sporting worlds, having just been named as chairman of the Royal Opera House’s board of trustees.

He also chairs the British Olympic Association, which is awaiting a decision about whether this year’s Tokyo Olympics will take place in 2021.

The Football Association and the England and Wales Cricket Board are understood to have been pushing for the creation of a new technology-focused panel as evidence grows of the devastating impact that the absence of spectators is having on the finances of professional sports clubs and leagues.

This weekend, eight English Football League matches – spread across the Championship and Leagues One and Two – will admit 1,000 fans each as the preparations for a more widespread return continue.

Rick Parry, the EFL chair, said of the pilot: “It’s encouraging that we are in a position to move forward with the next phase of the pilot programme and give a small number of our clubs the opportunity to welcome back up to 1,000 fans this week.

“The requirement to welcome spectators back through turnstiles has not diminished in any way, the financial challenges facing EFL clubs have been explained on numerous occasions, they are substantial and a problem that requires immediate solutions.”

The STIG will report its recommendations to Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, in the coming months.

One person briefed on the group’s remit said it would be advisory in nature, and focused on “the whole customer journey (from home to stadium) in returning crowds to major sporting events and providing ideas and evaluation of those ideas to government”.

In an article for The Sun newspaper earlier this month, Mr Dowden said he was “doing everything I can to get fans back in the stands, following the teams and enjoying the sports they love”.

“Sport’s economic health depends on their return to stadiums too. But this pandemic isn’t over, and we still face a number of challenges.

“We need to look carefully at the practicalities of opening things up – like how fans can travel safely to and from stadiums, as well as being safe in those venues – which is why these pilots are so important.”

Details of the STIG members’ prospective recommendations remain unclear at this stage, although one insider said some form of self-certification app was likely.

Mr Dowden wrote in his newspaper article that other ideas, including “tracking devices to measure social distancing between fans, and fluorescent disinfectants to reveal how often surfaces are touched” were expected to be considered.

Sports industry figures say the new group’s work will be undertaken in parallel with Operation Moonshot – the prime minister’s widely debated ambition of introducing rapid mass testing across the UK, which emerged earlier this month.

The Premier League said: “The Premier League and its clubs met today to discuss the return of supporters to stadiums.

“Safety remains the number one priority and clubs reiterated their commitment to ensuring Premier League stadiums will be among the safest public places, through the effective use of a wide range of mitigation measures.

“Clubs will adopt a range of common standards, which will help deliver bio-secure, safe environments for fans across the League.

“Clubs reaffirmed that the continued loss of matchday revenues is having a significant impact across the League as well as on the football pyramid and local and national economies.

“Taking into account the high safety standards which will be set by the Premier League in conjunction with the relevant public authorities, the league and clubs urge government to remain committed to the 1 October date for the controlled return of fans to sporting venues.”

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport declined to comment.

The STIG members are expected to be disclosed publicly later this month.

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