Why the Premier League's return project is set up for failure

On Monday, March 9, Harvey Barnes recorded a brace in Leicester’s 4-0 shellacking of Aston Villa

Little did we know that his second goal would be the last in the Premier League for a very long time.

Now, exactly 100 days after it was scored, the world’s most popular sports league is planning to make its return. On June 17, “Project Restart” will begin with Arsenal’s visit to Manchester City, a game that was initially postponed when Gunners boss Mikel Arteta tested positive for COVID-19.

Teams are currently in training to complete the 2019-20 season, and the Premier League will be buoyed by the success of the Bundesliga restart. The safety protocols in Germany, laid out meticulously in a 51-page handbook given to every club, have been followed monastically. As a result, progress in the top flight has not been halted by any virus outbreaks.

The Bundesliga undoubtedly provides a winning blueprint for the Premier League. But even if their example is followed to the letter, there is one major problem: Germany is not England.

Thus, there are multiple reasons to believe that a Premier League restart will not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The primary reason is the fact that Germany has dealt with the pandemic in a more timely, efficient and pragmatic manner than the United Kingdom. German authorities have been unilaterally praised for their early diagnosis, early quarantine and rapid response to the pandemic.

Mass testing — a crucial component in identifying and containing the spread of the coronavirus — was available at an early stage, and ramped up as lockdown restrictions were lifted. The country had ample hospital and lab testing capacity, and was quick to test on its borders, particularly those with Switzerland, where testing took place at an early stage, before a well-timed closure.

There's ample reason to be concerned about the viability of the Premier League's return. (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Accordingly, Germany has seen a COVID-19 death rate of 10.3 per 100,000 people. On June 2 the country reported just 213 new cases

By comparison, the UK has seen 58.2 deaths per 100,000, and reported 1,570 new cases on that same day.

That is not a good basis to restart a nationwide sports league involving thousands of people, with hundreds of players in close physical contact.

According to official figures, the UK has now surpassed 50,000 Coronavirus-related deaths. That is around half of the total deaths in the USA, but with a population roughly the size of California and Florida combined.

The UK government has come under severe criticism for imposing its lockdown measure on March 23, two weeks after the last Premier League match, and following an aborted attempt at herd immunity. 

Care workers have experienced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a plan to contain the virus with mass testing and contact tracing (like that seen in Germany) was scrapped by the government before the lockdown even started. 

Hence, it is not unreasonable to suggest the Premier League is in a far riskier position to restart than the Bundesliga. 

And the risks are not necessarily lessening, as the UK government pushes its reopening plans without implementing its own mass testing and tracing. UK schools, for example, reopened on Monday. Meanwhile, the nation’s beaches have been filled with scant regard for social distancing or PPE.

While Germany’s fans have generally behaved in a responsible and cautious manner, and have typically stayed away from stadiums, there is a fear that the same behavior may not be adhered to in Britain. Police have expressed their concern that fans will congregate near stadiums on match days, claiming the venues represent an “unsupervisable threat to public safety.”

Liverpool are just six points from winning their first title in 30 years, and there is a feeling that fans will be tempted to gather en masse to celebrate the league win. 

It’s not just the UK fans who will pose a threat to the Premier League restart. Need us remind you of the salacious manner in which Kyle Walker broke isolation protocols? His teammate Phil Foden is the latest to have been caught breaking physical distancing guidelines, while the likes of Jack Grealish and Serge Aurier have been busted too. 

In Germany, players have followed strict isolation protocols, and have been tested before every game. In the UK, many players have already proven that they find the rules too challenging, and while early testing rounds have been encouraging, the overall testing capacity might be in question.

Perhaps all these fears are unfounded and the Premier League restart will go off without a hitch. Perhaps players will approach their jobs with a Germanic discipline, and a willingness to play that has not yet been evident. Perhaps fans will refrain from increasing virus spread with mass gatherings, and positive cases will stay low in a manner that bucks nationwide trends. 

Perhaps we should trust the Premier League’s governing body to handle the situation diligently, despite a complete erosion of trust in the UK’s governing body to do the same thing.

We’re hoping to be proven wrong, but the rush to return under less-than-ideal circumstances feels like a setup for failure.  

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