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Ban on sports fans ‘inconsistent’ admits Culture Secretary

UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has conceded that “inconsistencies” exist around allowing spectators to attend indoor events in venues and theatres, while sports fans have been banned from watching their teams compete outdoors.

Dowden was grilled by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee earlier today (Wednesday) about the ban on crowds at sporting events, after a 1,000-person event at the London Palladium this week sparked questions about safety measures.

“I accept people’s frustration at the inconsistency there, but all I can do is explain to you how this has come about,” Dowden said.

“The simple reason for it is that we had sports on a path to return on October 1 and to have socially distanced spectators, that’s what we wanted to happen.

“The clear advice from the scientists was that we should be imposing restrictions and not further easements. It is worth noting the difference in terms of quantity. You would have a lot of people going into stadiums week in and week out up and down the country.

“Clearly people have noticed the London Palladium but it’s a different scale. If people are unhappy with indoor performances going ahead it’s a separate decision whether we stop those.

“If we had gone ahead on October 1 people would have seen very large numbers of fans going into stadiums at the very time that the virus was rising rapidly. This is not saying we are not going ahead with it, this is simply a pause.”

An image from the event led to many criticising the lack of social distancing in place, however LW Theatres, which is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company that owns the Palladium, insisted there was at least 1m space between all parties.

The 2,200-capacity venue’s chief executive Rebecca Kane Burton wrote on Twitter that “tens of thousands” of pounds had been spent on ensuring there was a “bubble” around each party and that the Palladium was “operating at around 50% capacity”

Anger over the ban on sports fans was heightened after the announcement that The O2 arena in London will welcome 4,700 socially distanced fans in December.

Dowden also slated the ‘Project Big Picture’, a new proposal to revamp professional football in England that is being driven by Liverpool and Manchester United, saying it might instead be described as “Project Power Grab”.

He hammered home the government’s opposition to the reform plan stating that it would “entrench the position of a small number of clubs”. Dowden also said that a fan-led review of football governance would take place at some point in the future but would be brought forward if the Project’s main points took hold.

In a different round of questioning, DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight asked the Culture Secretary why the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund has taken so long to reach the sector, with the first tranche of grants received yesterday (Tuesday) – more than 100 days since the funding was announced.

Dowden responded: “I wanted officials to evaluate the state of the sector and all the bids. It is better to do it in a proper way to ensure it commands the confidence of the taxpayer who is paying for this.”

More than 1,300 venues and organisations are to receive a share of £257m (€285m/$336m) government arts funding.

The Cavern, which hosted early Beatles gigs in Liverpool, has been given £525,000 to fund the recording of performances from local musicians, while Birmingham Royal Ballet will receive £500,000 to help off-set loss of earnings from performances and touring. Independent festivals will also receive £4.5m.

He was also asked about plans to bring some theatre back by Christmas, and stated that a rising level of infections has stunted plans.

“We are continuing the work behind the scenes to ensure that we can get things going again,” Dowden said, adding that the government is continuing to “prepare pilots for, if we are at the point where we get mass testing available… so people can safely go to the theatre without social distancing”.

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