It’s a season that’s so far delivered one of the more intriguing title races – just six points separate the top nine teams – but with the UK grappling with a significant spike in Covid-19 cases, the English Premier League is facing a major challenge in how it navigates the remainder of the 2020/2021 campaign.
On Tuesday, the Premier League announced 18 new positive Covid-19 tests among players and club staff in its latest round of testing. That’s the highest number of positive tests recorded since the league began weekly testing at the start of the current season.
On Monday, the match between Everton and Manchester City was postponed because of a Covid-19 outbreak at the latter club which included positive tests for players Gabriel Jesus and Kyle Walker on Christmas Day.
Monday’s postponement was the second match to be have been affected by Covid-19 this season – Newcastle’s game at Aston Villa was also postponed after a number of players and staff at the north-east club returned positive test results.
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Later on Wednesday, the Premier League announced a third postponement – the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham, which was slated to be played at 6 p.m. local time.
“Fulham lodged a request with the Premier League Board to rearrange the fixture following a significant rise in positive COVID-19 cases, as well as a number of players showing symptoms today,” said a Premier League statement.
“With low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs, the Premier League continues to have full confidence in its COVID-19 protocols and being able to continue to play our fixtures as scheduled.”
Fulham manager Scott Parker missed its previous game as he was self-isolating following a positive Covid-19 test in his household but announced he would return to the dugout for the Spurs game before its postponement.
‘When are we going to play the games?’
New West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce, who was appointed earlier in December, has called for a temporary halt to the Premier League season amid the rising number of positive test results.
“Everyone’s safety is more important than anything else. When I listen to the news the variant virus transmits quicker than the original … we can only do the right thing which is have a circuit break,” Allardyce told reporters after his side’s 5-0 defeat by Leeds United on Tuesday.
“I’m 66 and the last thing I want to do is catch COVID. I’m very concerned for myself and football … We had one positive this week and it seems to be creeping around no matter how hard we try.”
Meanwhile Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl had to stay in touch with his team from home via a video link for the goalless draw with West Ham on Tuesday after a member of his household tested positive for coronavirus.
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The UK recorded 53,135 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, breaking its daily record since the pandemic began for a second day in a row. A further 414 people have died, according to the British government.
The UK is also battling a new variant of the virus which spreads more quickly than the others and has forced increased restrictions over the festive period.
However, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says a break would more pressure on teams given the number of games still to be played and the rescheduled European Championships in the summer. United has another 23 leagues to play and is involved in three other competition, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League.
“It’s not something I’ve thought about a lot […] I think we, as a club and a group, our players have been really, really good following the protocols and rules, I have to praise them,” Solskjaer told the media after Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“That’s part of the job here, that we as clubs follow the protocols that we have been given. I can’t see the benefit in having a circuit breaker or whatever it is going to be called because when are we going to play the games?
“We all know it’s so difficult this year but if you just stop more games I don’t think that’s going to make a big, big change. It might be a longer one than that and when do we finish the season?”
The Premier League declined comment when asked by CNN as to whether the competitive balance of English football’s top-flight was being affected by the uptick in Covid-19 positive tests among multiple players and staff.