Hold it in London! Senior MP blasts 'pointless' plan to hold Champions League final in Istanbul


Senior MPs and public health experts have blasted ‘pointless’ and ‘ridiculous’ UEFA plans to expose thousands of Manchester City and Chelsea fans to an increased risk of Covid by keeping the Champions League final in virus-ravaged Istanbul. 

Turkey – currently in a lockdown set to end on May 17 – has a Covid infection rate 12 times higher than Britain’s, with 370 new cases per million people announced yesterday, compared to just 30 in the UK. Likewise, there were 31,200 more positive tests confirmed on Tuesday, alongside just 2,000 in the UK.  

The concerning numbers, along with the logistics of the final being contested by two English teams, sparked calls for it to instead be hosted at London’s Wembley Stadium. 

European football’s governing body have not been against quickly changing plans because of Covid, having moving the entire knockout part of last year’s tournament to Portugal, and making ties single-legged affairs.

However, bosses are  expected to confirm today that the final will definitely still be held in Istanbul as initially planned.

A total of 25,000 tickets – around a third of the Ataturk Stadium’s capacity – are expected to be made available, with 8,000 of these split between English fans of the two sides. The remaining tickets are likely to be offered to Turkish locals and UEFA bigwigs.

But some fear as many as double that number could make the trip over to Istanbul for an extended party around the fixture, scheduled for Saturday, May 29. 

With that comes concerns of alcohol-fuelled mingling in the city and on flights to and from the destination, before returning to the UK.

Furthermore, there have historically been violent clashes between English fans and Turkish ‘ultras’, with stabbings erupting amid huge riots in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final between Arsenal and Istanbul-based Galatasaray.

Turkey is expected to be placed on the government’s ‘amber’ list when the travel ban is lifted later this month, meaning people would be allowed to make the journey, but on return, they’d need to self-isolate at home for 10 days.

Public health expert Professor Keith Neal fears many will ignore those quarantine rules, though, as he branded football chiefs’ proposals as ‘corporate negligence’. 

Despite the growing concerns, however, the British government is not likely to intervene, a source close to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told MailOnline this morning. ‘It’s UEFA’s tournament so down to them,’ they said.

But Commons Culture Committee chair Julian Knight said it would be ‘pointless’ and put fans and teams at risk to proceed in Turkey amid high infection levels.

A total of 25,000 tickets - around a third of the Ataturk Stadium's (pictured) capacity - are expected to be made available, with 8,000 of these split between English fans of the two sides

A total of 25,000 tickets – around a third of the Ataturk Stadium’s (pictured) capacity – are expected to be made available, with 8,000 of these split between English fans of the two sides

Manchester City fans celebrate their team's victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday night

Manchester City fans celebrate their team’s victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday night

Chelsea fans celebrate outside the ground after beating Real Madrid 2-0 in their semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge last night

Chelsea fans celebrate outside the ground after beating Real Madrid 2-0 in their semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge last night

The LED screen inside Manchester City's Etihad Stadium displays a message of "Good luck in Istanbul!" ahead of the final

The LED screen inside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium displays a message of ‘Good luck in Istanbul!’ ahead of the final

Turkey's rate of coronavirus cases is around 12 times higher than Britain's and double the European average as the country is still in the grip of its second wave, with over 30,000 cases announced yesterday (Tuesday)

Turkey’s rate of coronavirus cases is around 12 times higher than Britain’s and double the European average as the country is still in the grip of its second wave, with over 30,000 cases announced yesterday (Tuesday)

HOW DOES TURKEY’S COVID OUTBREAK COMPARE TO THE UK’S? 

Covid statistics from Our World in Data, which collects figures from countries all over the world, suggest that Turkey’s outbreak is currently one of the worst in Europe.

The country is in the tail end of a second wave that peaked in late April when there were around 60,000 cases per day. At the same time in Britain the daily average was 2,500 per day.

Turkey is home to 82million, compared to 67million in the UK.

Yesterday (May 4), Turkey recorded 31,219 more positive tests – a rate of 370 cases per million people.

The UK, on the same day, recorded 1,946 cases at a rate of less than 30 per million.

Over the course of the entire pandemic Turkey has recorded more cases than anywhere else in Europe, with 4.9million cases compared to 4.8m in Russia and 4.4m in the UK, although it was not the highest rate per person, with smaller nations faring worse on that front.

He said: ‘Given our world leading vaccine programme and also the fact that we have been showing through the pilots that we are seemingly very capable of holding events in this country, then of course I would support the idea of the final being moved to Wembley.

‘Although international travel is very unlikely to the event, it would at least give a better experience for our fans to have the game in this country and hopefully there would be an opportunity to run the Champions League final as an additional pilot to allow fans into the ground.’

The Tory MP added: ‘It Is also about a Covid-secure environment for the players and the support staff. The most Covid-secure environment would be to have it in the country of origin of the two teams rather than make them travel.

‘It would seem to be much safer and more sensible to have it here.’

His concerns were echoed by public health expert Professor Keith Neal, who told MailOnline today: ‘The risk is ridiculous.’

Turkey is expected to be placed on the government’s ‘amber’ list when the travel ban is lifted later this month, meaning people will be allowed to travel, but need to self-isolate at home for 10 days.

Prof Neal fears many will refuse to do so, however, adding: ‘It is corporate negligence on the part of UEFA. The fans will not just go for the game. They will go there for a few days; they will drink and mix.

‘It could be managed safely here. You could have 20,000 or 30,0000 fans at Wembley quite safely and use lateral flow tests before they go in. You just need enough testers.

‘When the fans come back, we know too many will not self-isolate,’ added the University of Nottingham expert.

Prof Neal dismissed the possibility that English fans could be travelling in a bubble to Turkey and be insulated from the virus, given the level of infection in that country.

The public health expert has investigated many Covid outbreaks in the UK as part of the government’s response to the pandemic and they are often related to breaches in quarantine.

‘Too many clusters are related to people breaching quarantine in one way or another,’ he added. 

‘There are too many people who do not self-isolate.’

City put on a fantastic display to reach their first Champions League final in Istanbul where they will face Chelsea

City put on a fantastic display to reach their first Champions League final in Istanbul where they will face Chelsea

Chelsea booked their place in the Champions League final following a 3-1 aggregate victory over Real Madrid on Wednesday

Chelsea booked their place in the Champions League final following a 3-1 aggregate victory over Real Madrid on Wednesday

FREE TESTS FOR FANS?

Fans could be issued with free Covid tests to take with them to Istanbul, under plans to help make foreign travel a reality.

Whitehall sources told the Mail that fast-turnaround tests would be made available free of charge to people travelling abroad to cut the hassle and expense of getting a pre-return test in a foreign country.

However, it is expected that supporters returning from Turkey – along with other holiday makers – will still have to pay for a gold-standard PCR test when they get home, at a cost of at least £50 each.

The government is expected to detail its plans for lifting the blanket ban on travel on Friday.

Opposition MPs have also voiced concerns, insisting staging the game in Istanbul will make a ‘mockery’ of Britain’s efforts to stamp out the virus. 

Labour MP for Manchester Central Lucy Powell said the situation was ‘ridiculous’, telling MailOnline this morning: ‘It makes huge sense to just have it in London or Birmingham or Liverpool.

‘They need to make a decision quickly. Personally I think pressure should be put on UEFA quickly to move that. It seems like a very strange decision.’

Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for nearby Blackley and Broughton, also demanded the final be moved. 

‘It should be at Wembley, or if not at Wembley as there’s a lot of matches going on, at Cardiff.’

Last night, Eltham MP Clive Efford described it as ‘a risk not worth taking at this stage’, while Cardiff West MP Kevin Brennan added: ‘I know it would be a blow for Istanbul but… it would certainly be safer from a Covid point of view.’

Meanwhile, Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead and the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group of Football Supporters insisted UEFA has a social responsibility and ‘must look at the implications’.

Mr Mearns believes fans of both clubs will face huge temptation to attend the game, even if they will struggle to isolate when they return.

‘For some of them it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a final and the temptation will be massive for a lot of fans,’ he said.

‘But they have to think: ‘Do we want to be in a position where we jeopardise where we have got to in lockdown?”

Mr Mearns, an avid Newcastle fan, said he would not go to Turkey to watch the Magpies play if they were in the showpiece final this month.

And he believes UEFA should move the game to England and play it behind closed doors.

‘At the moment, wherever it is played there will be so few fans. Would it not be better to play in England behind closed doors? I am terribly sorry for the fans of both clubs but that seems to be the safest thing to do.’

 

FLU AND PNEUMONIA NOW KILL MORE THAN COVID IN ENGLAND 

More people are now dying from flu and pneumonia than Covid in England and Wales for the first time since the second wave took off, official figures revealed today.

Office for National Statistics data showed the virus was mentioned on 260 death certificates that occurred in the week ending April 23 — down 30 per cent on the week before.

But Covid was only listed as the underlying cause for 176 of the victims. For comparison, flu and pneumonia was behind 278 deaths in the same seven-day spell but mentioned on 1,203 certificates.

Covid was the leading cause of death during the second wave, claiming more than 1,000 lives a day at the peak of the crisis in January.

Experts said a successful vaccine roll-out forcing down Covid deaths, combined with more mixing leading to a resurgence in pneumonia-causing infections was behind the trend.

The promising figures will inevitably pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to speed-up his ultra-cautious lockdown exit strategy, which will not permit holidays or pubs and restaurants to serve indoors until May 17. Restrictions will remain in place until June 21, at the earliest. 

City eased their way to their first Champions League final with a stunning 2-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium, on Tuesday night, to go with their 2-1 win in France. Chelsea drew 1-1 with Real Madrid in the first leg in Spain and sealed a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge last night.

It is currently still illegal for Brits to travel abroad for non-essential reasons but this is expected to change on May 17, when the Foreign Office is likely to allow people to fly to countries with low Covid infection rates. 

Turkey has a slim chance of being on the green list, however, because it’s currently one of the worst-hit countries in Europe and has a slow vaccine rollout. This would mean fans must self-isolate for 10 days after returning to the UK.

Within hours of the City match finishing on Tuesday night, the club asked supporters to express their interest if they wanted to attend the final at the Ataturk Stadium, with The Times reporting 4,000 would be offered tickets.

Sources have told the paper the clubs may be permitted to sell even more tickets than their allocation if they organise the travel via official packages. 

However, the final arrangements will be influenced by the UK government’s travel restrictions, expected to be announced on Friday, which will determine whether fans would have to quarantine on their return. 

Turkey is currently in a ‘full lockdown’ until May 17. It has suffered a devastating spike of coronavirus, with a peak of 60,000 cases and 300 deaths a day in April and rates of infection remain thirteen times higher than the UK.

In addition, scientists say that Turkish scientists have a limited capacity to analyse the virus so there is not much reliable information about variants that may be circulating there.

The Kent, South Africa and Brazilian variants – those most concerning scientists – are all known to be spreading there but it is not clear which strain is dominant, nor whether there are others that might be worrying.

British Prime Minister and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the discovery of a new variant that can escape vaccine immunity is the number one threat to getting life back to normal in the UK, and the government is desperate to avoid it happening. Strict travel curbs are likely to stay in place for months in order to achieve this. 

Vaccine mister Nadhim Zahawi refused to be drawn on the prospect of English fans travelling to Turkey for the match when questioned on BBC Breakfast yesterday.

But Clive Efford, MP for Eltham, said: ‘To allow English fans to travel to and from Turkey would make a mockery of all the measures we have taken over recent months during lockdown.’

‘It is a risk not worth taking at this stage, particularly because we are concerned about new variants emerging and whether vaccines are effective against them,’ added, Efford, who is a qualified FA coach and life-long Millwall fan. 

‘And if it is two English clubs in the final it makes sense to move it from Istanbul.’  

Labour MP Kevin Brennan, a member of Parliament’s Culture Committee, told MailOnline that UEFA should ‘urgently’ look again at moving the final to England.

‘If it were to be between Chelsea and Manchester City it would make eminent sense to move it to Wembley or another suitable location in the UK,’ he said.

‘I know it would be a blow for Istanbul but surely a future final could be arranged to compensate. They could possibly have a greater capacity for the fans, and it would certainly be safer from a Covid point of view.’

He added: ‘It doesn’t make a lot of sense to proceed in Istanbul when it would be a lot safer [in the UK].’ 

 

Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan, ordered a full lockdown of the country on Thursday last week, which will last until May 17, in an attempt to drive the level of infection down, with schools closed and travel restricted.

But there is still an exemption for international tourists as the country tries to hold on to a crucial source of revenue.   

Turkey will be desperate to stage the game with fans to show the world that it is open for business after coronavirus wrecked the tourist season last summer. 

Politicians in the country fear European destinations will steal away customers as beaches, bars and restaurants reopen.

The foreign cash that tourists spend is critical to offset Turkey’s heavy foreign debt, but revenues plunged 65 per cent last year when the pandemic first hit, according to Reuters.

Turkey is hoping to host 30million foreigners this year, twice as many as last, if the lockdown succeeds in lowering daily Covid cases to below 5,000 from near 30,000 in recent days.  

While sympathetic to Turkey’s situation, Mr Efford said it shouldn’t influence decision-making.

‘The decision should be based on what is safe and in everyone’s interests,’ added the Labour politician. 

‘[Turkey’s situation] cannot be a factor. It is the risk we have to consider.

‘There should be no travelling fans from the UK. It is a tragedy, but that is the situation we are in.

‘It absolutely makes sense that if it is not going to be the huge spectacle it has always been then it should be played out at Wembley and Istanbul should be offered the final at a later date.’

Last year’s final was also scheduled for the Ataturk Stadium, before the latter stages of the blue riband competition were moved to Spain, where it was played in front of empty stands.

Liberal Democrat Layla Moran MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus said it would be ‘dangerous’ for fans to travel to Turkey now.

‘In light of the very high number of cases in Turkey, it would be dangerous to encourage fans to travel there to attend the Champions League final,’ she said.

‘In the current climate, where it is possible, games should be hosted in teams’ home nations. It is reckless for players and fans to have to travel abroad unnecessarily.

‘International journeys increase the risk of new Covid-19 variants being imported, which is why the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus has this week released a report discouraging all non-essential overseas travel.’ 

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of Norwich also told Sportsmail the risks of playing in Istanbul were too high.

‘So, from a global perspective holding big international events where people will probably not adhere to the guidance because they are overseas and there will probably be a lot of alcohol around does not seem a good idea,’ he said.

‘For me, I would not consider it a worthwhile risk. Even though cases are dropping it is still going to be pretty high. There is no way Turkey is going to get it down to anywhere near the UK by then.’

Turkey’s lockdown is due to end on May 17, which is also the earliest date that UK residents will be allowed to travel abroad, under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.

Currently all overseas holidays are banned for UK residents.

However, government ministers have spoken positively about travel restrictions being eased in May with the development of the NHS app, which would act as a Covid passport to demonstrate a person has been vaccinated against the virus, or has received a negative test.

When asked on BBC Breakfast yesterday about travel to Istanbul to watch Manchester City and Chelsea, before they progressed, the government’s vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, would not be drawn.

‘Later this week the Transport Secretary [Grant Shapps] will be stating what he has already announced which is the traffic light system,’ he said. ‘We have 40 countries on the red list… There will be the amber list and green list. Grant Shapps will be setting this out later this week.’

Under the plans, countries will be designated a colour, red, amber, or green, which will determine the quarantine requirements on the return to the UK.

‘Red countries’ would require returning travellers to quarantine in a government-approved hotel, while an amber rating would mean people have to self-isolate at home for 10 days.

Dr Julian Tang, a virologist and Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of Respiratory Sciences at the University of Leicester, told Sportsmail there were risks associated with the match, which were heightened by the fact that Turkey does not extensively sequence the virus, so the number and type of variants in the country is not known.

Added to that he said 80 per cent of people do not self-isolate properly, when they return to the UK, which creates the risk of spreading the disease.

However, he said football fans will make up a small part of the total travel taking place to and from the UK after May 17.

‘The bigger picture is that the UK is going to open up to foreign travel by the end of this month. If you are going to open up, you are going to have to deal with these things.’

Flights are currently operating between the UK and Turkey. All passengers aged six years and above are required to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before departure. And there is currently no requirement to self-isolate once in Turkey.

Last month, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin removed restrictions on attendance at matches and this month travel bans on fans were also lifted, with host countries left to decide on safe limits.

UEFA told The Athletic last week that the Turkish lockdown would not affect the final.

‘The Champions League final will take place in Istanbul on May 29 with a limited number of spectators and we are assured that the temporary lockdown which is in force until May 17 should not have any impact on the match.

‘UEFA will continue to work closely with the Turkish Football Federation and the local and national authorities to stage the match safely.’

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