A growing number of Football League clubs are urging the players’ union to stump up the £5m needed to fund weekly Covid-19 testing for the rest of the season, the Guardian can reveal. Their call comes amid growing concerns for player welfare and a surge in cases.
Elite sport has been allowed to continue under the government’s new lockdown regulations, but matches have been postponed across all four divisions since the Christmas period. On Tuesday the Premier League announced it had recorded a record 40 positive Covid-19 results.
The EFL has this week undertaken its first round of mandatory testing since the start of the season and will introduce twice-weekly tests until the end of the campaign if funding can be agreed. It follows a Christmas period in which more than 40 matches were suspended because of Covid-19 outbreaks. The Premier League, EFL and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are confident the seasons remain on course.
The EFL abandoned mandatory testing last summer because of its cost and has stuck to a series of protocols designed to reduce the risk of infection. Although clubs believe these protocols should allow the season to be completed, even if it has to be extended, more testing would be welcomed and a number of clubs believe the Professional Footballers’ Association should foot the bill.
“Currently we’re not planning for a weekly testing regime and quite frankly we couldn’t afford it,” the Cambridge United chairman, Ian Mather, said. “I think there needs to be another stream of funding [for testing]. I think the obvious funding source is the PFA. If you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation it might cost £5m to do testing every week to the end of the season in the EFL. That’s about 10% of the PFA’s reserves. I think they’re the obvious group to fund it. They’ve got the resources to do it, it’s a player welfare issue.”
Phil Wallace, the chairman of League Two Stevenage, said he could not understand why the PFA had not paid for extra testing. “If they are all about the welfare of their members then surely they should be involved in anything to do with testing,” he said. “Logic would tell you that the more you test the quicker you find the cases and the quicker you isolate players.”
The director of football at League One Peterborough, Barry Fry, also called for more testing. “The PFA has got more than £55m in the bank so why can’t they give some of that for the testing of their members?” he said.
The PFA has made a financial contribution towards the latest round of testing in the EFL and since October has provided funding to the EFL to support clubs in applying Covid protocols. The PFA has been approached for comment.
The Premier League moved to twice-weekly testing of players and staff after Christmas and published the first set of results on Tuesday. Between Monday 28 December and Thursday 31 December, 1,311 tests produced 28 new positive tests. Between Friday 1 January and Sunday 3 January, a further 984 tests were conducted, producing 12 positives.
That is a weekly record since the league began testing and has resulted in a warning to clubs to pay stricter attention to existing Covid protocols. The Guardian understands clubs have been asked tighten up their safety protocols around both training and travel to and from match days, as well as around accommodation and the games themselves.
Speaking before Manchester City’s Carabao Cup semi-final at Manchester United, Pep Guardiola said of professional football: “It looks like we are an island inside society. Everything is locked down except ourselves.” City’s manager added: “Don’t change the schedule, don’t change the calendar, don’t change the rules, we have to adapt.”
Representatives from the Premier League, EFL and National League met the sports minister, Oliver Dowden, on Monday to discuss the recent spate of coronavirus cases and the financial impact on the game. However, sources insisted it was a routine meeting and there are no plans to suspend elite sport.
Another front in the struggle against the virus is the FA Cup third round, which starts on Friday. Non-league Marine have been given an exemption from government rules banning non-elite sport before their tie with Tottenham. The FA has warned teams they may forfeit their ties if they do not have 14 players available.