Two major UK sports events which were allowed to go ahead in March “caused increased suffering and death”, say scientists.
Researchers say the government’s refusal to ban mass outdoor events, even as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a coronavirus pandemic, cost lives.
In March, there was alarm after images from the Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool FC’s Champions League match at home to Atletico Madrid showed huge numbers of people gathered together.
And data gathered from millions of volunteers in the UK’s largest COVID-19 tracking project show there were coronavirus “hotspots” shortly after the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool-Atletico match.
Professor Tim Spector, from King’s College London, which carried out the research, told the BBC that local cases “increased several-fold” after the two sports events.
"I think sporting events should have been shut down at least a week earlier because they'll have caused increased suffering and death that wouldn't otherwise have occurred,” he said.
The university’s COVID symptom app uses information uploaded by more than three million volunteers.
Last week, the team said up to 70,000 coronavirus cases had been missed because the public were not warned that loss of taste and smell were key symptoms of the disease.
Later that day, the government added loss of taste or smell to its official list of symptoms, which had previously only included a cough or a fever.
Prof Spector spoke to File on 4 – Game Changer: How the UK played on during coronavirus, which will air on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday.
Watch the video below
The government dismissed the university’s app’s findings on Cheltenham and Liverpool. In a statement, it told the BBC: "There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in a particular area, including population density, age, general health, and the position of an area on the pandemic curve."
In early March, Boris Johnson said people in the UK should “as far as possible, go about business as usual”, even though other European countries were shutting down.
While other nations were cancelling sporting events or playing them behind closed doors, there was a full programme of football in England and Scotland, while England hosted Wales at Twickenham in London in rugby’s Six Nations – a game attended by the prime minister himself.
On 9 March, the day before the Cheltenham Festival was due to open to 250,000 horse racing fans, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said there was “no reason for people not to attend such events”.
However, Prof Spector said that decision meant “people will have probably died prematurely”.
The COVID app study revealed that an estimated 5% to 6% of the population aged between 20 and 69 in the areas of Cheltenham and Liverpool had coronavirus symptoms after the events.
On the second day of the Cheltenham Festival, 11 March, the WHO declared a coronavirus pandemic.
That evening, 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to travel to Liverpool for the Champions League match, even though Madrid had been the epicentre of Spain’s coronavirus outbreak.
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