Plans for crowds returning to stadiums by the autumn were plunged into uncertainty on Friday as spectator pilots at the snooker, cricket and horse racing were all cancelled by Boris Johnson due to second-wave Covid-19 fears.
Goodwood, the Kia Oval, Edgbaston and the Crucible were forced to abandon plans at just 24 hours' notice following Government warnings that lockdown easing has been put back by at least a fortnight.
Whitehall sources insisted that the timetable remained broadly in place for the proposed return of 20 to 40 per cent crowds, including at Premier League grounds, from Oct 1. However ministers have repeatedly said those proposals are dependent on the pilots going ahead successfully in advance.
Friday's cancellation affects a total of around 17,000 ticket-holders who were due to attend either Glorious Goodwood, the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield or the Bob Willis Trophy cricket matches hosted by Surrey and Warwickshire.
The pilots were halted after the Prime Minister announced "our assessment is that we should squeeze that brake pedal" following recent surges in Europe, America and, to a lesser extent, England.
Glorious Goodwood was due to be the first test racecourse to have a major crowd since the week after the Cheltenham Festival. Adam Waterworth, the managing director of sport at the Goodwood Estate, revealed efforts to get the venue ready Covid-secure for spectators had "cost us six figures". The last-minute cancellation was "a big kick", he added. "Hopefully they still can and hopefully there will be the opportunity for racing to show we can do this, but if we are going to hit October 1, we are going to have to run some trials fairly quickly,” Waterworth said.
At the Crucible, around 200 indoor spectators had already arrived on Friday when World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn was told he would have to cancel his indoor crowd pilot from today. “We realise this will be a huge disappointment for fans who were excited to witness the magic of the Crucible over the next fortnight, and we feel the same ourselves," said Hearn.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), meanwhile, said it accepted the advice that spectators should now be stopped from attending the two Bob Willis Trophy matches - the second weekend of crowd trials in cricket. "We understand the reasons the Government has made this decision, and remain ready to work with them to ensure supporters can safely return to stadiums when Government advice allows," the ECB said.
Pilots of sporting crowds, along with small wedding receptions and reopening of bowling alleys and casinos, were postponed for at least two weeks as the Office for National Statistics said there has been an increase in the number of people testing positive for coronavirus in England. According to the ONS, between July 20 and 26 there were around 0.78 new Covid-19 infections for every 10,000 people in the community population in England - equal to around 4,200 new cases per day. This is up from an estimated 2,800 new cases a day in the previous week.
"With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should squeeze that brake pedal," Johnson said at a Downing Street briefing, adding that "indoor performances will not resume, pilots of larger gatherings in sports venues and conference centres will not take place, and wedding receptions of up to 30 people will not be permitted."
Around 5,000 annual members and their guests have now been forced to abandon their plans to attend Goodwood. “We weren’t just horse racing – this was a pilot for the whole of sport," Waterworth added. "Cricket got their couple of days in this week, but we were the big one, the one they had asked to try with larger numbers. The Prime Minister’s announcement was originally 1 October, so I hope it doesn’t have any impact on that date in terms of when sports can start to accept crowds again."
Sports minister Nigel Huddleston was due to be among a party of observers at Goodwood. Speaking earlier this week, he had told Telegraph Sport that Oct 1 was "certainly the target that we're looking at". He added: "We genuinely want to make sure that we learn the lessons from those pilots. We're really talking just over two months away... But I'm confident we'll meet that date."
On Thursday evening it was announced that people from different households in Greater Manchester, parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire would no longer be allowed to meet each other inside their homes or in gardens. The ECB is not expecting disruption of Wednesday's opening day in the Test match against Pakistan at Old Trafford.