Government ministers are increasingly concerned that football has stopped taking Covid-19 seriously following an FA Cup weekend in which safety guidance was widely flouted.
Despite elite sport’s privileged status in being able to continue during a strict national lockdown, the behaviour in and around matches throughout the third round of the competition has prompted significant disquiet inside Whitehall.
Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, had already warned English football’s leaders last week that the flouting of Covid-19 rules by players was playing into the hands of those who wanted elite sport stopped during the third national lockdown, as it was for three months last year.
With cases soaring across the country, the Football Association had then reiterated its protocols to clubs before one of the biggest weekends of the sporting calendar and will now again be reminding clubs of their responsibilities.
Although there are small differences in the respective protocols across elite sport, the Government’s guidance clearly says that there should be social distancing measures in respect of player interactions both on and off the pitch, including while celebrating goals.
There were again examples throughout the weekend of unrestrained goal celebrations.
Government guidance for the continuation of elite sport also specifically states that time spent inside changing facilities should preferably be avoided, or at least minimised with social distancing. The FA has recommended staggered changing times and stressed the particularly heightened risk of transmission in these areas.
Players and staff of Chorley and Crawley Town, however, were filmed ecstatically celebrating their shock FA Cup wins, seemingly without any restraint, from within busy dressing rooms. The Chorley players and staff were even recorded belting out a lengthy rendition of the Adele song Someone Like You.
The Covid-19 guidance on Chorley’s own website says that “changing rooms should be used for changing and showering only and done so as quickly as possible”. It also stresses that usage is “staggered to minimise numbers” and that social distancing is observed.
There were comparable scenes at Crawley following their victory over Leeds United, with players and staff jumping up and down, hugging and spraying champagne.
A Whitehall source said that the various incidents had “not gone unnoticed” inside government, where there is immense pressure to limit the spread of Covid-19 due to the demands being placed on the National Health Service.
The streets outside Marine’s ground were lined by hundreds of supporters as the team arrived for their match against Tottenham Hotspur, even though people are only supposed to leave their homes in very specific “necessary” circumstances.
Merseyside police later said that the majority of people present “were adhering to social distancing measures, and those who were not were advised by officers”.
In Scotland, Celtic’s decision to fly to Dubai for a training camp came under further scrutiny after an unnamed player tested positive for coronavirus. The club were waiting to hear from the Government over whether they would be exempted from quarantine rules that were introduced on Sunday night for anyone returning from Dubai.
Celtic are scheduled to host Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership on Monday evening.
The FA had warned clubs before the third round that they must follow protocols and take all necessary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, including regular washing and sanitising of hands, wearing face coverings wherever possible and social distancing with other players, staff and match officials.
When football first returned in the German Bundesliga last May, players were allowed to celebrate with a brief elbow or foot contact but, as the weeks have passed, all restraint in England has receded.
The wider context, however, is of record numbers of daily Covid-19 deaths and record numbers of daily infections and outbreaks across numerous football clubs, which has led to a series of postponements and questions about whether elite sport should be allowed to continue.
The Government and Chris Whitty, its Chief Medical Officer, have repeatedly stressed that every individual has a personal responsibility to consider their behaviour and minimise the Covid-19 risk.
The Premier League on Friday issued clubs with a set of “enhanced” measures to halt the spread throughout squads, threatening action against players who break government protocols as well as warning them against “handshakes or hugging” and shirt-swapping.
The letter was sent to all 20 clubs as infections across the game rose in line with national figures and the English Football League’s testing programme returned 112 positive tests from 3,507 players and staff.
Football’s governing bodies are acutely aware that the continuation of the season will rest on whether they can keep infections under control and set an example publicly.
The Telegraph contacted both Crawley Town and Chorley, whose dressing-room celebrations were widely shared across social media.