UK racing faces a media and political uproar over its decision to host the Cheltenham Festival 2020 in early March, as COVID-19 cases began spreading throughout the world.
At Monday’s ‘UK Coronavirus Briefing,’ Angela McLean – the deputy chief medical advisor to the government – reported that a post-lockdown review would be conducted into the ‘epidemiological consequences’ of UK sports retaining their schedules for early March.
The Cheltenham Festival (March 10-13) was the highest-profile UK sporting event taking place at a time when the UK government was following a ‘containment phase’ strategy in subduing the spread of Coronavirus.
The UK public health networks had reported below 400 cases by the start date of the festival, and five deaths linked to the virus.
The UK Government did not curtail public mass meetings during its ‘containment phase,’ opting instead to follow a policy of ‘tracking coronavirus cases’ around the UK.
Therefore, the sports programme of early March, which saw a full roster of football matches taking place alongside Six Nations Rugby matches at Twickenham and Murrayfield, days before the start of Cheltenham 2020, was retained.
Anfield also hosted a champions league match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid on Wednesday 11 March.
The promoters of Cheltenham defended their decision to host the festival, saying that the Festival had followed the recommendations of the government and taken measures for public safety.
Nick Rust backed Cheltenham organisers and racing stakeholders this April, repeating that the decision was taken in accordance with government information.
Rust replied: “All of the Government’s scientific advice, and indeed that of the chief medical officers within the BHA and RCA (Racecourse Association), was that based on all the advice on all the Government advice and based on where we were that Cheltenham could go ahead.
“There were massive calls to listen to Government advice, don’t move away from that Government advice, there is no reason why you should not be carrying on and you must carry on because we need to make sure Government advice is followed.”
Criticism has been aimed at UK racing after NHS Trust reported 125 deaths in Gloucestershire hospitals, nearly doubling the number of deaths in nearby Bath (45) and Swindon (67).
However, the Gloucestershire Council said it would not draw conclusions, saying that all aspects of COVID-19 had to be weighed up before examining death caused by the virus.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who spoke on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, defended the government’s decision to allow Cheltenham 2020 to continue.
Dowden said: “The scientific evidence we were being given was that, at a mass gathering, the threat at a mass gathering relates to the people who immediately surround you – the people in front of you and behind you”
“The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.”