LONDON – Scenes before the Euro 2020 soccer match between England and Scotland did not look like a pandemic.
Tens of thousands of fans, many without masks, descended on London for the June 18 game, filling planes with rowdy songs and turning the city’s Leicester Square into something akin to a music festival.
Many have left London with more than a hangover. This week, Public Health Scotland announced that nearly 1,300 have since tested positive for Covid-19.
It was not an isolated incident.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization warned that Euro 2020 – a pan-continental, quadrennial football tournament whose quarter-finals are played on Friday – is leading to an increase in coronavirus cases across Europe.
Western governments are counting on the mass deployment of vaccines in the hope that it will allow them to once again host the type of mass events that were deemed too risky last year.
But as cases rise again in parts of Europe, likely fueled by the delta variant which is much more transmissible and believed to be slightly better at evading certain vaccines, these relaxed measures are under close scrutiny. . Some experts are calling for a more cautious approach until a larger percentage of people have been vaccinated and cases start to decline.
Vaccines appear to reduce hospitalizations and deaths in places like the UK, where the delta variant, first identified in India, is rampant, but it is not known to what extent.
“We have to look far beyond the stadiums themselves,” WHO emergency officer Catherine Smallwood told reporters on Thursday. “We have to look at how people get there, do they travel in large, crowded bus convoys? And when they leave the stadiums, do they go to crowded bars and pubs to watch the games?”
She added: “It’s these small, continuous events that cause the virus to spread. “
Others have been even more scathing.
Euro 2020 is one of the many events this summer allowing tens of thousands of spectators to enter theaters. Others include the ongoing Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Formula 1 car race from Silverstone in England on July 18.
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German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called UEFA, the European football governing body overseeing Euro 2020, “totally irresponsible” for allowing massive crowds. Cases have fallen to low levels in Germany, and its Euro 2020 matches were played in a 20% full stadium in Munich.
“I cannot explain why UEFA is unreasonable,” he told a press conference this week. “I suspect it is due to commercialism.”
Britain’s Culture, Media and Sports Department fired NBC News to UEFA when asked to comment on the reviews. In an emailed statement, he stressed the “strict entry requirements” for all fans attending matches in the UK, with all participants having to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result.
UEFA says it’s up to the host countries to decide how many supporters they allow. This is based on factors “including the local vaccination rollout, their plans to reopen the economy and the expected slowdown in the virus due to warming temperatures,” its website says.
Euro 2020 medical adviser Dr Daniel Koch said in an emailed statement that “the rallies could ultimately lead to a local increase in the number of cases,” but said this would also be the case for many other “situations that are now permitted in the relaxation” of pandemic restrictions.
He said “intensive vaccination campaigns” “would help ensure that no new big waves start in Europe and put pressure on the respective health systems, as happened in previous waves of infection.”
It’s true that most Euro 2020-related infections are in men between the ages of 20 and 40, who are less likely to get sick than older people. But experts fear that even with the vaccinations, a wave of infections will ultimately lead to an increase in serious illnesses, deaths and so-called long-haul travelers who suffer from symptoms for months on end.
This criticism comes a few weeks before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23. Responding to months of criticism and opposition to the event, organizers are rolling out strict rules about where athletes and other guests can go and what they can do. International fans are banned altogether.
Still, Japanese government advisers say they predict infections will likely increase during gaming.
Such strict measures are rarely, if at all, rolled out at Euro 2020, which, unlike previous tournaments, is not held in one country but in 11 cities on the continent.
In the Russian city of St. Petersburg, 30,500 supporters – or 50% of the stadium – are allowed in with just a temperature check, according to the UEFA website. This would miss asymptomatic or early cases of the virus. Meanwhile, deaths in Russia are currently reaching their highest pandemic levels, and only about 12% of people there are fully vaccinated.
Finland has contained Covid-19 relatively well so far. But he has suffered a “peak” of nearly 400 cases of Covid-19 “due to the return of football fans from Russia,” his health ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
Over the next 10 days, tens of thousands of fans will attend the Euro 2020 quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, St. Petersburg, Rome, Munich and London.
Switzerland are among those remaining in the competition, facing Spain in St. Petersburg on Friday.
“Things are exploding with the delta variant,” Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference this week, according to a Reuters translation. “Without getting vaccinated, I wouldn’t go – I wouldn’t. And if you’re vaccinated, you can go. But it comes with multiple risks. You have to be careful.”