UK

Covid-19 football view displayed lack of ‘real life’ experience in government

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara said she was concerned a lack of ‘real life’ perspectives in Boris Johnson’s government led to mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara said she was concerned a lack of ‘real life’ perspectives in Boris Johnson’s government led to mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA) Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara said she was concerned a lack of ‘real life’ perspectives in Boris Johnson’s government led to mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

One of Boris Johnson’s former top officials said she was concerned a lack of “real life” perspectives in his government led to mistakes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ex-deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara said a belief that football matches were relatively safe because they were outdoors suggested a lack of experience of queuing to get through turnstiles, crowds thronging on concourses, or fans packing into pubs.

She said: “Nobody who was involved in that discussion had probably ever been to a football game in quite the way that most people go to football games.”

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid – UEFA Champions League – Round of 16 – Second Leg – Anfield
Liverpool v Atletico Madrid – UEFA Champions League – Round of 16 – Second Leg – Anfield Football matches including Liverpool’s clash with Atletico Madrid continued to take place with fans at grounds in early March 2020 (Peter Byrne/PA)

Ms MacNamara said “alarm bells” about the situation followed a conversation in early March 2020 with then shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth as part of her role in briefing opposition politicians about the Government’s approach.

The “house view” in the Government was that there was no need to restrict football matches because they happened outdoors and so the risks of Covid-19 transmission would be minimal.

In her witness statement she said: “As the shadow health secretary pointed out in the meeting, attending football matches often involves being on crowded public transport, being together in the pub, and in close contact with other fans in areas of the stadium like turnstiles and concourses.

“It bothered me that the policy line was far from the reality as it suggested that the discussions had not involved enough people with broader or real-life perspectives.”

Sports events without restrictions took place in the week beginning March 9 2020, including Liverpool’s Champions League last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid at Anfield and horseracing at the Cheltenham Festival.

It was not until March 13 2020 that professional games in England were suspended.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry, she said: “I was worried that the fact that the kind of house view was that football games were OK showed – and this is not a criticism of the people, it’s a criticism of process, of other things – that nobody who was involved in that discussion had probably ever been to a football game in quite the way that most people go to football games.

“And it was that gap between what I knew to be how most people live their lives and what was really happening in place and this theoretical idea that standing outside singing was OK – that made me worry about what other disconnects there might be.

“It wasn’t just about football, it was that this seemed like a big problem if people were thinking that something was one thing when it was really something completely different.”

After leaving her senior Civil Service role, Ms MacNamara worked for the Premier League, including on efforts to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission at matches.