A sporting record will be broken on Sunday when 4,000 football fans gather at Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final between Leicester City and Southampton. It will be the largest crowd to have watched a football match in a major British stadium for more than 12 months, though still one of the lowest-attended Wembley semi-finals on record.
At the same time, in Sheffield, 325 snooker fans will gather to watch the 2021 World Snooker Championship at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield, a sport that has also been played behind closed doors throughout the pandemic.
In both cases, fans will get a chance, at last, to watch a top sporting event live. They will also take part in a research project, the Events Research Programme, that will determine how quickly sports tournaments can open to the public this summer.
Fans will be given Covid tests before and after matches, their behaviour will be analysed using video cameras, and journeys to and from events will be monitored.
“This is a world-leading study,” said Professor Paul Monks, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. “The UK is very much at the forefront of this kind of research and results will determine just how quickly we emerge from lockdown this summer. It is exciting – and daunting.”
This point was backed by Dr Aoife Hunt, a mathematician who specialises in people movement, and who is a researcher on the programme. “We will be looking at journey times to events, the ways that seating areas are laid out, at adherence to social distancing inside events, the amount of space a person has around them, are they wearing face masks when requested, and how food and drink are consumed during matches.”
A report on how these events affect the spread of coronavirus will be handed to ministers in May, and that will determine how quickly sporting events are to be opened up in the UK this year.
Monks said that before then, over the next few weeks, social-distancing restrictions inside both Wembley and the Crucible would be reduced with the aim of getting attendance at the world snooker championships up to full capacity of 900 fans, while it was hoped 8,000 people could attend the next big game at Wembley – the Carabao Cup Final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur on 25 April.