Allan Prosser: Are we willing to accept medical apartheid for watching sport?

Difficult though it may be to believe, the British government approach to allowing the crowds back has been characterised by vagueness, ambiguity and misdirection
Allan Prosser: Are we willing to accept medical apartheid for watching sport?

CLEAN SHEET: A man dressed as a ghost stands in the stand prior to the UEFA Europa League match between Linzer ASK and Manchester United in Linz, Austria, on March 12.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago a mid-ranking Hollywood thriller was predicated on the notion that society will divide into pre-determined “haves” and “have nots” because of the genetic susceptibility of a person to various forms of disease and illness. The sheep will be separated from the goats by eugenics and biometrics.

Much of the plot of Gattaca involves the moral challenges of testing and certification and the problems of possessing the wrong kind of DNA. So far, so cyberpunk. Plenty there to enthuse molecular biologists and bio-ethicists. Not so much for ticket holders on Hill 16, or the Kop or the West Stand at Thomond.

But that is changing as the sports world and its business managers struggle to emerge from the curse of Covid-19 and encourage the return of fans and their spending power.

Failure to guarantee a minimal number of spectators threatens Dublin’s prospects of hosting three Group E matches and a last-16 tie from the delayed Euro 2020 tournament. Other nations including England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Russia remain bullish about opening the turnstiles this summer.

While Ireland may be suffering from a surfeit of honesty and/or realism you don’t have to be a weatherman, as Bob Dylan reminded us, to know which way the wind blows.

The Bahrain Grand Prix, the first race in this year’s competition, was accessible to fully vaccinated customers or those who could prove they had wholly recovered from the virus utilising the state’s ubiquitous BeAware app — 4,500 F1 followers attended.

Italy is not prepared to take the risk for the next championship at Imola in eight days but the Portuguese are pinning their hopes on rapid testing allowing general access to the Autodromo do Algarve at Portimao on May 2.

In India, which hosts a 16-nation T20 cricket World Cup this October, authorities have had some preliminary stress testing with the March tour by England. The first two matches at the 132,000 capacity Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad attracted around 60,000 for each but a total ban followed a rise in Covid-19 cases in Gujarat.

What the experience in India showed was that there was significant flouting of social distancing with many abandoning masks. During a Day/Night Test a fan evaded security and ran onto the field to greet Indian captain Virat Kohli, thus puncturing the player’s bio bubble.

This weekend marks the opening of the Indian Premier League season, the outcomes of which will inform the decisions of sports administrators everywhere. The organisers of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo will not allow overseas visitors and are refunding more than 600,000 international tickets while the British and Irish Lions tour and its followers await imminent guidance for July and August although that country remains on the UK Red List for travel.

With the Champions League and Europa League and most premier football competitions still being held behind closed doors the next month may see some significant initiatives to break the deadlock on lockdown.

In Russia, Zenit St Petersburg is offering free Sputnik V vaccines to all its fans attending home matches at the Gazprom Arena. Meanwhile the British government is limbering up on the sidelines of club football, never a pleasing prospect.

A phased return is being trialled with the FA Cup semi-final between Southampton and Leicester next weekend while Tottenham and Manchester City are to be granted 2,000 tickets each for the Carabao Cup Final at Wembley in a fortnight.

There is a suggestion that the City faithful will have to utilise special “Covid-secure” transport if they want to attend. All supporters will also have to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated, have tested negative or have immunity.

Difficult though it may be to believe, the British government approach to allowing the crowds back has been characterised by vagueness, ambiguity and misdirection. Its preferred solution may involve a “covid status certificate” which might allow a vaccination record to be supplemented by an antibody test and linked to a smart card and perhaps a season ticket. The technology is already racing away under the benevolent eye of the UK Rapid Test Consortium.

This combination of big tech, big pharma, big brains, and the profit opportunity may be a wonderful thing and it has the attention of major sports stadia, organisations and entrepreneurs particularly in rugby and soccer. It’s also the reason that these people get the big bucks.

But ...

It is important to take an individual position on whether we are willing to accept a medically-based apartheid system for watching professional sport.

Let me declare myself as I stand on the cusp of my second jab. I have no problem with nations setting rules for entry across their borders. I have carried around vaccination certificates before, and I will again. Their rules are their rules. There is a world of difference between this and access to everyday experiences in our own societies. Availability of vaccines across Europe is patchy, political and contains an inherent bias against the young who have already suffered greatly in the pandemic. Goalposts are continuously being moved. Once vaccination becomes a precursor to social inclusion it implies compulsion, and it will be a disaster.

That current aphorism that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, while glib, has a core truth. And restrictions which hold everyone in place must have a sunset clause because governments always overreach and technocrats and bureaucrats are particularly susceptible to mission creep.

One of the more memorable quotes from Gattaca (which was set in the “not too distant future”) is this: “I belong to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. We now have discrimination down to a science.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy that. And I won’t support it with my presence. This won’t shake the halls of the mighty at Stamford Bridge, the Principality Stadium, Wembley, Lords and the Oval. But it will allow me to look in the mirror without flinching.

The moving finger writes...

As an example of the transience which now challenges sport legislators everywhere it is instructive to read England Rugby’s draft policy for the participation of transgender and non-binary gender players.

This is out for public consultation and runs to 10 pages including a useful glossary, accompanying video, and survey. You can see it on englandrugby.com/about-rfu/rfu-policies/transgender-policy and responses are required by 5pm on April 16.

The new document has been issued following protocols tabled by World Rugby last year which banned trans women from the international game after warning there was “at least a 20-30% greater risk” of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty.

The English document sets height and weight parameters for trans women which would require a coach’s assessment to see if they pose a potential danger to other players.

The IRFU transgender policy document dates to 2019, before the declarations of World Rugby and the proposals from England Rugby. While it does provide guidance on testosterone levels, it is silent on other issues. Which may be as well because the suggestions have not been greeted with entirely unalloyed pleasure in the rugby community and, in particular, the women’s game.

This is a rabbit hole in a legal minefield with scope for butting up against cherished modern principles such as inclusiveness. Watch this space.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Bouncy Czechs: Prague is the home of Franz Kafka and Mikel Arteta and his Gunners face a trial all of their own making next Thursday after conceding a last second goal to a doughty Slavia who have already got the better of Glasgow Rangers and Leicester City in the Europa League.

Another treble: Aintree racing! Bloody hell

HELL IN A HANDCART

You’re on hold: Who doesn’t love an automated ticketing system? Thousands of users seeking matches for the RWC2023 in France waited for hours in screaming frustration watching error messages and being returned to the start of the queue as 350,000 tickets sold in five hours on Tuesday. Meanwhile official spin said: “The France 2023 Organising Committee does rejoice in the continued enthusiasm shown by rugby fans across the world.”

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