/5 questions for Nicola Sturgeon as Rangers and Celtic turn up the heat

5 questions for Nicola Sturgeon as Rangers and Celtic turn up the heat

The route out of the pandemic was always bound to be bumpy and football is proving no exception.

That we can at least discuss the prospect of full capacities crowds in the foreseeable future is a sweet relief after 16 months of shuttered stadia.

But as Scotland transitions back to a world free of Covid-19 restrictions, the gradual reopening of football grounds is still causing some consternation.

Event capacity is a tricky issue to navigate, as evidenced in recent days.

Celtic have been limited to just 2000 for their upcoming friendly with Preston but want 20,000 for a Champions League showdown with Midtjylland.

A disappointed Rangers, too, have been limited for Saturday’s meeting with Arsenal, while Aberdeen await a response for their upcoming Europa Conference League qualifier.

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Although the prospect of all restrictions being removed is on the horizon, the current process has fans crying inconsistency.

Here’s five questions First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could answer to ease their frustration.

Why only 2000 now?

Confirmation that 12,000 fans would be permitted to attend Hampden for three Euro 2020 matches felt like a significant step forward.

That the decision was taken with Glasgow still in Level 1 tentatively raised anticipation of further increases by the time the city – and Scotland at large – dropped to Level 0.

But there’s since been frustrated head-scratching at the 2000 limit on outdoor events announced at the lowest level of restrictions.

In a broader context, setting a baseline makes sense. Event venues will obviously vary in capacity and perhaps nowhere moreso than football grounds, so the line must be drawn somewhere and the opportunity for clubs to apply for increases shows flexibility.

But such a system remains open to accusations of inconsistency and permitting 12,000 at Hampden for the Euros but only 2000 at Celtic Park and Ibrox for upcoming clashes – thus far including Champions League fixtures – is one example, as Rangers were keen to point out.

The FM has repeatedly stressed the importance of trade-offs in making these decisions and the cultural significance of the Euros will have undoubtedly played a part in increasing capacity, but when fans are given little to no direct explanations, it’s inevitable there will be some resentment.

What was learned from the Euros?

Scotland fans in the stands prior to the UEFA Euro 2020 Group D match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Picture date: Tuesday June 22, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Scotland. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder.

Although an increase in Covid-19 cases were linked back to gatherings of fans watching the Euros, these were largely not traced to the matches themselves.

The events at Hampden were a highly controlled affair with fans required to be in their seats well in advance of kick-off and unable to access food and beverage stalls while in the stadium.

There was hope the success of these matches would inspire confidence in opening up stadia on a more widespread basis and while they weren’t given official “test event” status, fans will be keen to know what was learned and what adjustments can be made moving forward.

Can social distancing rules be relaxed further, and can more of the traditional stadium experience be brought back sooner?

What’s the criteria for more fans?

It’s clear a primary source of frustration has been the lack of clarity around decision-making.

If supporters can’t see the reasoning behind refusals, they will simply draw their own conclusions and a quick glance at social media shows they’re doing exactly that.

There may be perfectly sound public health judgement behind why stadiums able to hold tens of thousands remain reduced to a fraction of their potential total. If so, why not tell people why?

Sturgeon has insisted she will make no apologies for moving at a cautious pace in lifting restrictions, completely understandable given the horrific toll the pandemic has taken on the country.

There are few among us who would dispute that football is secondary to the health of the nation but it’s not unreasonable for supporters to crave some answers as to why greater leeway can be given to certain occasions and not others.

Making the criteria easily accessible and clear would surely help.

Why was Murrayfield given greater capacity?

There’s been a lingering feeling among football fans for years that the oval ball has been treated differently by the authorities.

The revelation that Murrayfield was able to host more fans for a British and Irish Lions fixture than Hampden was for a genuinely generational even in Scotland’s return to a major provoked inevitable groans.

The rugby match was permitted to host 16,500 compared to Hampden’s 12,000.

Again, it comes back to the criteria behind such decisions not being clearly communicated.

In response to an FOI request as to why the national stadium was operating at a lower proportional capacity than Wembley for the Euros, the Government were vague: “Public safety is paramount and the decision to permit spectators on the scale proposed for EURO 2020 matches at Hampden Park follows an extensive period of consultation between event organisers and national clinicians, with strict public health measures in place to ensure that fans can attend safely.

“Event plans will be continually assessed and reviewed by partners before and during the tournament taking into account the latest scientific evidence. The capacity for the matches at Wembley Stadium in London is a matter for UK Government and event partners.”

What comes after August 9?

That is, of course, the indicative date for the removal of all restrictions in Scotland.

Given the rapidly changeable nature of the pandemic, indicative is the key word, but clubs will be encouraged by attaching a date to the intent to lift all curbs.

Scottish football’s joint response group were told earlier in July it is “hoped” capacity limits will be removed on this date.

But clubs can’t operate on a hope.

Measures such as face masks in public places and self-isolation of positive cases are set to remain in place for some time and it feels a safe assumption that most people would accept this trade-off in getting society back to otherwise normal function.

Continued limits on attendances would be devastating for football, national clinical director Jason Leitch expressed more confidence.

He said in June: “Yes, they can on August 10th, but we’ve had to learn that new word, that indicative word, so we have given advice that with a fair wind the trajectory we are presently on with vaccinations. Remember, we are vaccinating 300,000 people every 10 days so that’s a lot of vaccine and this six weeks buys us quite a lot of vaccine time.

“If people come, and that’s the important thing people can do, then yes, we hope August 9th and 10th can happen.

“On August 9th, the level system disappears, unless, for instance, there were particular hotspots or the country didn’t do what we hope it will do. Maybe vaccinations slow down for some reason.

“It’s a little bit indicative, then on August 9th all physical distancing is removed and the limits on event sizes are removed.”

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