Palladium yes, stadium no: ‘inconsistencies’ frustrate sports fans

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden says behind-closed-doors events are ‘positively hateful’ but unavoidable

Cardboard cutouts of football fans at St Andrew’s stadium in Birmingham
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden says behind-closed-doors events is ‘positively hateful’ but unavoidable
(Image credit: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images )

Pictures showing hundreds of people at the London Palladium have left sports fans angry and confused as to why they can’t go to open-air stadiums.

On Sunday the Palladium held two performances of musical Songs for a New World while on Monday former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was on stage speaking about his career.

Football fans were allowed to watch the Frenchman discuss his 22-year stint with the Gunners, but they are still banned from stadiums for live matches. This has left many fans and pundits accusing the government of hypocrisy over coronavirus social distancing rules, the Daily Mail reports.

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Tweeting an image from the Palladium, TV presenter Piers Morgan said he was “completely bemused” that the theatre could have 1,000 people for the Q&A with Wenger, but fans are still not allowed to watch matches outside even when socially distanced.

Meanwhile, former England striker and TV pundit Gary Lineker quoted Morgan’s tweet and responded: “Makes no sense whatsoever. You can listen to football chat in a relatively crowded indoor arena, but you can’t watch football with a limited crowd in an outdoor arena.”

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It had been planned that a limited number of fans would return to sports stadiums and arenas at the start of October as part of a pilot scheme, but this idea was scrapped after a rise in Covid-19 cases across the UK.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has admitted there have been “inconsistencies” in the government’s approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic, The Independent reports.

Facing questions at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee today, Dowden was asked by MP Steve Brine why people can watch socially distanced indoor performances but not sports.

Dowden replied: “Of course I accept people’s frustration at the inconsistency there. The simple reason for it is that we had sports on a path to return on 1 October and to have socially distanced spectators, that’s what we wanted to happen.

“The clear advice from the scientists was that we should be imposing restrictions and not further easements. It is worth noting the difference in terms of quantity. You would have a lot of people going into stadiums week in and week out up and down the country.

“Clearly people have noticed the London Palladium but it’s a different scale. If people are unhappy with indoor performances going ahead it’s a separate decision whether we stop those.

“If we had gone ahead on 1 October people would have seen very large numbers of fans going into stadiums at the very time that the virus was rising rapidly. This is not saying we are not going ahead with it, this is simply a pause.

“We are doing things that are positively hateful, but the reason we are doing it is to secure public safety.”

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EFL: fans should be treated fairly

The English Football League (EFL) issued a statement to The Daily Telegraph saying it remains “deeply frustrated” at the decision to suspend plans for the return of fans. “While we recognise that the UK is facing a significant public health crisis, football and football supporters should be treated fairly,” said the EFL.

Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Association, added: “If the London Palladium is considered to be safe then, certainly, football grounds should be considered to be safe. What we cannot tolerate is a football ground being subject to different regimes than any other cultural or entertainment facility.”

In response to the reactions a spokesperson for LW Theatres, which operates the London Palladium, said: “The London Palladium was not ‘packed’ for ‘An Evening with Arsene Wenger’. We were operating at 50% capacity. This is fully in line with, and indeed goes further than, the Government’s current Stage 4 guidance for the reopening of theatres.”

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Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.