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Football's vaccine passport problem

I’ve seen some strange things on the news whilst sitting in hospital waiting rooms. A few weeks ago, the biscuit was taken. As I waited for my wife to finish her midwife appointment, TV news cameras followed grown men and women singing Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘Horses’ on Melbourne’s largest bridge. It’s a song Aussies hold close to their heart, and I’ve still not worked out why.

It was a clutch for control, long being starved of freedom for almost 300 days of intermittent lockdowns as tradies (and many right wing opposers of lockdowns and deniers of COVID) executed an illegal protest in response to vaccines for the construction industry being made mandatory . Meanwhile, most of the world have moved on, are watching football and enjoying other typical pre-COVID past times.

Australia really does feel worlds apart. Last week the UK averaged around 35,000 cases a day, Italy close to 4,000, France just under 5,000. In Australia there are 21,000 cases total. The Premier League, Serie A and League 1 are well underway with fans in full attendance and full voice.

Alarmingly, it’s the UK numbers that stand out most and whilst Westminster has stated this week vaccine passports won’t be necessary to attend matches, the Premier League will continue to enforce its own protocols and stadium guidelines, including demonstration of double vaccination.

North of the border, where the Scottish National Party are developing a platform for fans to carry vaccine passports, delays have occurred.

Rangers, who host Hibs in a top of the table clash at Ibrox, Hearts and Aberdeen have said a lack of a passport or proof of vaccination won’t see them locked out of grounds for this weekend’s SPL games, as Scottish football observes a two week grace period before the proposed rules come into force.

The Glasgow and Edinburgh outfits will use the events to gather data on fans, and take feedback on the changes sweeping football attendance rules.

Aberdeen on the other hand have abandoned any plans to move towards the new regulations or use the game as a test event.

It begs the question, how seriously is football taking COVID following high vaccination rates? Moreover, how seriously does football need to take COVID? In 2016 Nottingham Forest began the season behind closed doors whilst the City Ground lacked required safety certificates to host crowds.

Without suggesting Brian Clough Way should have been bumper to bumper with Forest fans heading to the City Ground on those past match days - how are fans shut out of grounds in order to avoid potential safety hazards, but are allowed in to others that could be giant petri dishes for COVID to spread as we head in to winter?

The settings, allowing fans into grounds, are in place because vaccination levels are at satisfactory and recommended levels. Around 65% of Scotland is double jabbed, a population comparable to New Zealand or Brisbane. Both of those locations will wait for around 80% before such freedoms are granted. Vaccine levels go up, so why are the rules in Scotland becoming stricter? Were they too soft to begin with?

COVID has never been about case numbers. It’s about hospital beds available and hospital beds needed. Simple supply and demand. Be it a 20% or 35% un-vaccinated portion of a five million population it’s still not clear, two years after COVID broke out in Wuhan, who is weighing the risk up correctly?

Approximately 90,000 fans will attend top flight games in Scotland this weekend. If the government believes tracking vaccination levels of attending fans really is essential to public safety, why have fans been allowed back already? If the infrastructure to monitor this is not ready for this weekend, and fans are set to be at games regardless, why bother with the rules at all come 18th October when the grace period ends?

In Australia, the vaccine mandates to construction workers and essential workers in Victoria don’t come as a great surprise, but the time afforded for these communities to get the jab is frustratingly short given the federal government's abysmal roll out strategy.

It’s leaving many with a choice between their incomes and their right to a free choice. Some workers are essential to how our towns and cities continue to operate, meanwhile work is simply essential to most.

A football match however, is not. Levels of unvaccinated people far exceeds available beds in both Scotland and Australia, so a passport of sorts makes sense, but targeting 100% of a match day crowd being double jabbed might be a stretch. An alternative is clubs allocating tickets to vaccinated fans first, and allowing a small proportion of seats to go to the rest.

Around 20% of the UK isn’t immunised. If clubs offer the first 90% of tickets to vaccinated supporters, this would see crowds above the national vaccination level. Considering all away fans must be vaccinated still, avoids those without protection mixing in confined spaces; cars, coaches and trains, contracting the virus becoming a risk (to themselves) and the health system.

In short, it’s still not clear. The weather changes and how we gather changes with it. So does the virus, evolving, not weakening whilst large swathes are yet to be jabbed.

As I sat in that waiting room, waiting for my wife who I live in total lockdown with talk to a double jabbed nurse, as I watched the builders on the bridge waive their arms and and sing in unison, I thought about the group exercise you are allowed to participate in, the wedding you can attend or round of golf you can play. I thought what happens when fans do get shut out of grounds for not having a passport, months after them being allowed back at games?

Carnage. Then I thought of Scottish football fans storming the Forth Road Bridge, and Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me, floating down the Forth of Firth. You read it here first.

Picture: Iain Henderson, Flickr

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