Sports in Britain virtually ground to a halt on Monday as the government ramped up its efforts to tackle the coronavirus by advising against mass gatherings in the country.
The iconic Grand National Steeplechase, the Oxford vs. Cambridge university boat race, all levels of rugby union and rugby league, and the lower levels in soccer were among the remaining events or competitions to be canceled or suspended amid the pandemic.
Elite soccer, such as the widely watched English Premier League, had already been suspended last week after individuals at clubs tested positive for the virus.
But Monday marked a significant shift in the government’s position, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson advising the public to take extra steps in the face of the virus. Britain has had 1,543 confirmed cases and 53 virus-related deaths.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and most recover. The worldwide outbreak has sickened over 179,000 people and left more than 7,000 dead. Over 78,000 people have recovered, most of them in China.
While acknowledging the risk of transmission of disease was relatively low at sporting events, Johnson said: “But obviously, logically, as we advise against unnecessary social contact of all kinds, it’s right that we should extend that advice to mass gatherings as well.
“We will no longer be supporting mass gatherings with emergency workers in the way that we normally do. So mass gatherings, we are now moving emphatically away from.”
It meant soccer teams were opting to close training complexes, with Premier League club Crystal Palace among those urging players to stay home and “undertake personalized training plans.”
As it stands, a snooker tournament — The Tour Championship, being held in north Wales — and minor horse-racing meetings are the only sporting events that will continue. They will be held without fans.
The Grand National — the horse race Britons bet on more than any other — was one of the last events to fall, with organizers giving up on plans to stage the April 4 race without fans because of “its importance to the racing industry and beyond.”
“But following the new government measures confirmed this evening to help to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, this is not a viable option,” the Jockey Club said.
“I know this is hugely disappointing news,” said Sally Dudgeon, the Jockey Club’s senior steward, “for the many people who work in our sport and the many millions who were looking forward to this year’s event, but very sadly these are exceptional times and this is the responsible thing to do.”
In advising all grassroots soccer to be postponed, the Football Association said it was taking government advice as it had done “throughout this period.”
The Rugby Football Union said it was suspending all levels of rugby in England from Tuesday until April 14 “subject to continued review.”
“Where possible, players at all levels are encouraged to maintain their own personal fitness and keep active during this time,” the RFU said, “while following government guidelines about safe distance and safe exercise environments.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80