The Premier League sought “urgent advice” from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam in the wake of Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis becoming infected with coronavirus, the PA news agency has discovered.
The league’s executive director Bill Bush emailed Government officials, including Anna Deignan, the head of sport at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on March 11, two days before the English professional game was suspended due to the pandemic.
The correspondence was included in documents obtained by PA under a Freedom of Information request.
Bush was concerned that top-flight clubs were taking individual advice from local health authorities on how to make themselves Covid-secure and admitted “a lot of wheel reinvention is taking place”.
He wrote: “Some urgent advice needed (from PHE or Chief Medical Officer’s staff?)
“With an increasing number of direct contacts between first-team players/staff and confirmed cases of C19, we could do with a discussion (ie phone call rather than a long exchange of emails) about how the quarantine guidance should play out in practice with clubs and playing fixtures, staying in training etc.
“There are a number of concerns raised by the Marinakis incidents and we think that the easiest and quickest way to resolve them with consistency would be to set up a call with an appropriate PHE/CMO expert (Van Tam was excellent at his briefing with sport) with a picked handful of club doctors and senior PL execs with responsibility for football matters, including match organisation.
“At the moment, club doctors are going to their local and regional PHE people with similar questions, so a lot of wheel reinvention is taking place, and pulling together all the responses at league level is impossible.
“This is now urgent with the weekend matches soon to be upon us – any chance of say 45mins tomorrow?”
An official at DCMS, whose name has been redacted, said: “Will investigate, Bill.”
The Premier League will convene an emergency club meeting tomorrow morning regarding fixtures after Mikel Arteta tested positive for COVID-19
— Premier League (@premierleague) March 12, 2020
Marinakis’ positive test was confirmed on March 10. Another email from the Premier League to the Government contains a draft of its planned statement from the evening of March 12, which confirmed that all the weekend’s games were due to go ahead as scheduled and was ultimately published.
Soon after publication, Arsenal confirmed their head coach Mikel Arteta had contracted coronavirus, prompting the league to convene the emergency meeting on Friday morning where the suspension of football was confirmed.
In the early hours of the Friday morning it was also confirmed that Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi had tested positive.
Arteta had been a close contact of Marinakis when the Greek attended a Europa League match involving Olympiacos, another club the shipping magnate owns.
Arteta told Arsenal Player after recovering from the virus: “It’s true I started having some symptoms when we got the phone call from the club to let us know that we might be exposed to the virus because of the owner of Olympiacos and in that moment… I don’t know, I felt something within me, that I had it.”
Another email from April shows how a Premier League official raised concerns to Bush and another league official about comments made by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon concerning the public health impact of televising behind closed doors matches.
The email read: “Hi both. Wanted to give you the heads up on the below from an ITV Scotland journalist who has tweeted: ‘Nicola Sturgeon saying sports fans should not expect to be back in stadiums any time soon – certainly difficult until there’s a vaccine.
“‘Her CMO also against televised sports events behind closed doors – he warns it could encourage people to gather in groups to watch’.”
The official added: “No doubt we will get asked if we are getting similar advice from Govt re not broadcasting BCD.”
Bush sent the email on to Deignan at DCMS, and added: “FYI – queries may come your way. We’re saying nowt as Scottish football is different and we wouldn’t comment on something outside our jurisdiction.”
Deignan replied: “Thanks Bill. Helpful to know.”
Project Restart ultimately involved all 92 remaining matches of the 2019-20 season being played behind closed doors and televised, with 33 of the matches made available free to air.