Nicola Sturgeon's Covid advisor baffled by England's golf and tennis ban as Scotland plots its own pathway

Jeremy Wilson
·9-min read
Golf and tennis chiefs 'disappointed' at lockdown reopening delays - PA
Golf and tennis chiefs 'disappointed' at lockdown reopening delays - PA

One of Nicola Sturgeon’s key Covid-19 advisors has expressed bafflement at England’s five-week wait for socially-distanced outdoor sports like golf and tennis to return.

Scotland announced its road map for exiting lockdown on Tuesday and, having allowed certain non-contact sports since January, as well as gatherings of up to 13 primary school children, will continue with that policy.

Non-contact outdoor sports for children aged between 12 and 17 will return on March 15 in Scotland, two weeks earlier than in England, but gyms and leisure centres will reopen several weeks later at the end of April.

Professor Devi Sridhar, a member of the Scottish Government advisory group and the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School, said that the decision simply followed a calculation that the benefits to people’s mental and physical health outweighed the risks.

There has been no evidence of ‘clusters’ of Covid-19 infections relating to those activities and, for people with young children or who regularly play golf and tennis, it has allowed some crucial additional interaction and opportunities to get active during this third national lockdown.

Regarding the announcement on Tuesday that tennis and golf would return at the same time as all outdoor sports, whether contact or non-contact, Prof Sridhar said: “I have no idea why they’re not already allowed in England. It’s great to see full tennis courts and kids in bubbles doing outdoor activities together. We need restrictions where we know transmission occurs more often and less restrictions where it is safer. Tennis and golf aren’t contact sports. Outdoor transmission is minimal we know - especially with distancing for outside sports.”

The governing bodies of golf and tennis in England have already outlined frustration that they must wait a further five weeks and will return recreationally at the same time as outdoor contact and team sports like football and rugby.

The Lawn Tennis Association had argued in its submissions to Government that “a naturally socially distanced and safe activity” like tennis could return immediately. England Golf said that it was “extremely disappointed” that golfers must wait until March 29, especially after feeling confident following talks with Government that it would be cleared to resume on March 8 when schools reopen.

The Government, however, has prioritised outdoor grassroots sports ahead of almost every other section of society and it will be the first major sector to reopen after schools on March 29.

“Over the weekend I discussed this with public health experts who explained that grassroots sports are low risk, rather than no risk, which is why we don’t currently have the R capacity to open Saturday football alongside schools,” explained Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. “But grassroots sport has been prioritised above the return of every other part of the economy and our national life because it, above other things, will help us come back stronger and healthier.”

The Football Association has announced that the grassroots game can continue until the end of June this year, potentially allowing for another three months of fixtures following its return at the end of March.

The Rugby Football Union is hopeful that it will also be allowed to return in late March but is awaiting final Government clearance.

Only a handful of matches have been played in the past year at community level in England. Rugby Union was the last major team sport to receive the green light to return in December under adapted rules featuring no scrums or mauls before the country was placed into a fresh lockdown. The 2020-21 season has already been cancelled at community level but friendly matches could be arranged before the 2021-22 season begins.

How grassroots sport reacted

Tim Barnes - owner/director of Hartford Golf Club

I'm pleased but a little disappointed. For the life of me, I can’t understand why golf is being classed together with outdoor team sports, when there’s all that space out there and it’s so simple to practise social distancing. But it's great to have a definitive date and we do have time to prepare. In truth, January and February would have largely been write-offs anyway because of the weather but it would have been great if we could have the majority of March.

The phone has been ringing all day asking for tee-times on March 29 and the members will ensure that first day is completely booked out. We are just checking whether four-balls will be allowed.

The clocks change on the 28th, so we will have extra time to get more players out there, and we are expecting it to be very, very busy. The course looks great after a few months' rest, because it really did get hammered with all the extra traffic that started to flood on to courses last summer.

I was on a PGA [Professional Golf Association] call the other day and we are anticipating those levels of interest to continue, if not increase. The equipment-makers are ready to get their new clubs on the market to coincide with the green light and it should be good times - even more so when the clubhouse bars and restaurants can reopen. I can understand the frustration of golfers being denied their hobby, but for golf as a business it could have been far worse.

Membership subscriptions have become a huge talking point within golf clubs. If you think about it, members would have paid full whack for six months golf, with all the three enforced breaks, and the issue is whether they will be compensated. I know some clubs who are saying they cannot afford to do that and others which are being very generous with refunds.

Our membership year starts on April 1, so you could say this is well-timed. We’ll be sending the renewal letters out soon and will have to decide what to do about it. I am expecting it to be a mad summer and we are so looking forward to it. We wish it could be sooner, but at least we have that clarity now. James Corrigan

Brian Flynn - Faversham Town's director of youth development

It is obviously frustrating for all of us that there’s an extra three-week delay to club football returning after schools reopen. But it does at least give everybody light at the end of the tunnel and gives us something to aim for.

The kids are already motivated, the older kids are on social media talking about how they’re going to get ready for five weeks’ time, how they’re going to get their fitness back and everything.

The worst situation you could possibly have is one where you give them a date and then it doesn’t work out – where that’s snatched away again. So, it’s absolutely crucial now that everything is done to ensure that we do get back on that date. To take it away again would be incredibly cruel.

As soon as you’ve got an announcement, there are all sorts of questions: does it mean we can train normally? Are we allowed to play league matches? Can we use changing rooms? Can teams travel? Can parents watch their children play?

In the past, the Football Association has not been as proficient as it should have been in translating what was often a one-line Government announcement into the practicalities of coaching kids and adults.

There was particular confusion when the country was divided into tiers before Christmas because we play teams from across the county and beyond. We also had players who lived in other tiers and we were not sure if they could even come and train.

The FA and the Government should have been talking leading up to this so that, when the announcement is made, the FA would be in a position to publish almost immediately the interpretation of what the Government’s announcement means. Boris Johnson isn’t going to go on television and spend 15 minutes explaining exactly what it means for kids football.

We have often waited days and days with kids asking, "Can we train? Can we play games?", and we have not been able to answer them because the FA has been too slow. Ben Rumsby

Toby Sanders - Millwall Rugby Club

It is coming up to 12 months since our last fixture against Harlow at the beginning of March but I have no idea what our team will look like when we next play. We are based on the Isle of Dogs and are the only rugby club in the borough of Tower Hamlets so we represent 360,000 people but a lot of players work around the City.

I have been keeping a track of our first-team squad - half have left London or the country. We have lost our first-team coach and first-team captain so they are going to be hard figures to replace. On the other hand, I have never seen as many young players turn up for training as we did in the autumn.

We went from having 40 kids to suddenly having 80 and I think there’s the potential to double that again and make headway into the diverse communities of Tower Hamlets. I would praise the RFU in the way they have communicated information on the stages of the roadmap.

But as a small organisation, getting your head around the government’s regulations on opening bars and what constitutes substantial meals was a lot to deal with.

I would have a big concern if the adapted form of the game is what we are playing this time next year. As a short-term measure it made sense to get the clubs doing something but there are a lot of people who will not play without the scrum. Daniel Schofield