As Euro 2020 heads towards its conclusion, and ever larger crowds flock to matches, there are increasing concerns about games becoming super-spreader events as the Delta variant of coronavirus fuels a rise in infections around Europe.
With vaccination progressing fast across the continent and people eagerly anticipating the holiday season, it is tempting to view large crowds at European Championship matches and gathering in cities as a sign of life returning to normal.
However there are particular concerns about upcoming games in London and Saint Petersburg, two cities particularly affected by the Delta variant.
“If we want to spread the Delta variant around Europe then this is the way to do it,” epidemiologist Antoine Flahault told AFP.
Friday’s quarter-final between Spain and Switzerland will go ahead in Saint Petersburg, despite Russia dealing with a surge in virus cases and record daily deaths.
Both semi-finals and the final will be played in London, with more than 60,000 fans allowed to attend the games at Wembley.
The Delta variant has also been behind a steep upward curve in cases in the United Kingdom but that did not stop authorities easing restrictions for England’s last-16 win over Germany on Tuesday.
England supporters make their way up Olympic Way and into Wembley for the Germany game
Almost 42,000 fans were inside the 90,000-seat Wembley to witness that game and the images of maskless England supporters wildly celebrating victory have caused some consternation.
In England, excitement is growing that the national team could go on to win the European crown in front of their own supporters.
Flahault though is of the opinion that matches scheduled for Wembley should be moved.
“It wouldn’t have been very difficult to move these matches to cities where the risk is not so great,” said Flahault, the director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.
– Matches will not be moved –
UEFA, though, has no plans to move any matches.
European football’s governing body told AFP “all the remaining matches will go ahead according to the match schedule as planned”.
On Thursday, the World Health Organisation warned new coronavirus cases across Europe had risen by 10 percent over the last week after a previously long and steady decline.
And the WHO admitted to fears that crowds at Euro 2020 – which is being played in 11 countries for the first time – could be a contributing factor, saying host cities needed to do more to monitor the movement of spectators beyond stadiums.
“How are people getting there? Are they travelling in large crowded convoys of buses? Are they taking individual measures when they are doing that?,” asked Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO’s European office.
“What we know is that in a context of increasing transmission, large mass gatherings can act as amplifiers in terms of transmission,” she added.
– ‘No new big wave’ –
Finland supporters at their team’s game against Russia in Saint Petersburg
Most games in the tournament, postponed from last year because of the pandemic, have been played in front of severely restricted attendances.
However, in Hungary’s capital Budapest there were no restrictions on capacity, meaning a tournament high of nearly 56,000 spectators attended the host nation’s match against France.
Danish authorities reported that three supporters were infected with the Delta variant at their team’s game against Belgium in Copenhagen and urged 4,000 other fans to get tested.
Finland’s health authority reported nearly 100 cases among fans who had travelled across the border to attend their team’s game against Russia in Saint Petersburg.
Public Health Scotland said nearly 2,000 cases were linked to people watching matches, two thirds of them people who travelled to London for Scotland’s game against England.
“It cannot be totally excluded that events and gatherings could ultimately lead to some local increase in the number of cases, but this would not only apply to football matches, but also to any kind of situations that are now allowed as part of the easing measures decided by the competent local authorities,” said Dr Daniel Koch, UEFA’s medical advisor for the competition.
“The intensive vaccination campaigns that have been rolled out across Europe and the border controls will help ensure that no new big wave will start in Europe and put pressure on the respective health systems, as was the case during the previous infection waves.”
Flahault, meanwhile, believes fans should not consider going to games in London or in Saint Petersburg if they are not vaccinated, and encouraged those who do to avoid gathering in bars and restaurants or crowding onto public transport.