LONDON — The pandemic will make it "very difficult" for Premier League matches to be staged with full crowds for at least another year and capacities face being capped at 25% when stadiums eventually re-open, a leading government adviser told The Associated Press.
In his first interview as chair of the British government committee on the return of elite sports, James Calder cautioned against a hasty, widescale re-opening and return to normality as the coronavirus threat persists without a vaccine.
Calder, a surgeon renowned for operating on sports stars, played an integral role in helping the Premier League return in June after a 100-day shutdown, with supporters excluded from stadiums and twice weekly coronavirus testing on players and coaches.
The season ends on Sunday and Calder urged players to avoid going on holiday to COVID-19 hotspots, singling out the dangers in the United States. But he is hopeful testing on players can be reduced next season.
The new season begins on Sept. 12 after other sports events — starting with cricket this Sunday — are used to pilot how spectators can safely return to venues for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in Britain in March.
Calder also sits on the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee that determined last week there can be a re-opening of stadiums to fans from October if there isn't a new significant spike in COVID-19 cases.
But stadiums will be far from full for a long time.
"Whilst we've got a virus around without a vaccine, I think it's going be very, very difficult to do. I really can't see that happening in the next year," Calder said. "If there's a vaccine that comes out, that's been proven to be effective or ... if the virus mutates and that isn't as dangerous, then it may open (stadiums fully) but I can't see it happening really until next year at the earliest.
"We're probably looking at a maximum 25% full capacity ... perhaps in some stadiums, it may be down to 17% and there's a financial viability there as to whether it's viable to open up the stadium."
Scientists at Oxford University this week said their experimental coronavirus vaccine has been shown in an early trial to prompt a protective immune response in hundreds of people who got the shot. They can't tell yet if the vaccine truly protects against COVID-19 or approve its use widely.
"It's going to take time to vaccinate the population, to encourage people to take up the vaccine and then see how effective it is," said Calder, who is not an expert in vaccines. "I'm sure that the government and the advisers would say we ought to just wait and see a little bit longer before we start opening up the whole of society ... it's going to be difficult, I think, for another year."
Britain now has Europe's highest official pandemic death toll, which stood at more than 45,000 as of Thursday.
Calder was speaking to the AP in a video interview between calls with the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
He was also called on by the Premier League to speak to managers and players during the national lockdown while uncertainty persisted about the safety and wisdom of resuming the competition during a pandemic.
"There was actually a lot of fear ... about going back into an unknown environment and trying to think of a way of getting them through that, out of their houses into grounds safely," Calder said. "There is no way we could make it safe and we had to be very, very explicit about that. And all you can do is try and reduce the risk and make a very safe environment at work."
Premier League players and other club staff have required twice weekly testing for the coronavirus. Of 2,208 tests last week, there were no positive cases.
"The prevalence of the disease has gone much further down and we've now got to review the whole structure," Calder said. "We will have to change the testing regime and I would hope that at some stage we won't need to test. But I think initially we've got to continue testing to a certain extent.
"How that goes we're taking advice from the government experts and the virologists and the world experts. But ultimately, I think in next season we may start off with once or twice a week initially with the testing and then review as we go through the season."
One way players can avoid being infected while away from their clubs is taking preventative measures during the brief offseason break in August.
"When you when you're away, just keep your social distancing — don't let your guard down," Calder said.
"You probably want to choose the place you go to carefully. The United States of America and Brazil and South America are difficult places ... I'd avoid States and South America at the moment and India and Pakistan."