Coronavirus: UK Government gives 'close-contact' and 'competitive' training go-ahead for sport

May 24, 2020

The UK government has released its 'phase two' guidance for athletes and elite sportsmen and women to make a phased return to close-contact and competitive training, provided individual sports "have the appropriate carefully controlled medical conditions in place".

Public health officials and sports medical officers have contributed to the guidelines which permit organised and close-contact training to take place under carefully controlled medical conditions.

Premier League footballers have already returned in socially distanced small groups but clubs now face a key vote on Wednesday over contact training.

The official advice, aimed at helping competitors reach fitness levels required for matches, says close-contact training for elite athletes can include coaching and tackling in team sports within a two-metre distance.

The guidelines clarify: "Stage Two training can be described as the resumption of close contact (interaction within the two-metre social distancing boundary) training where pairs, small groups and/or teams will be able to interact in much closer contact (e.g. close quarters coaching, combat sports sparring, teams sports tackling, technical equipment sharing, etc)."

On May 13, the government published its 'phase one' guidance, which advised adherence to strict social distancing.

'Stage three' of the government's protocols are expected to centre around a return to professional sports in June.

'Individual sports must review before proceeding'

The government stressed that the decision to implement the latest guidelines will be the responsibility of the respective sports bodies and clubs, in consultation with athletes, coaches and support staff.

In socially distanced environments, sailing and taekwando have also made steps towards resuming competitive action, while other Olympic and Paralympic disciplines are yet to make decisions over a return.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said: "This new guidance marks the latest phase of a carefully phased return to training process for elite athletes, designed to limit the risk of injury and protect the health and safety of all involved.

"We are absolutely clear that individual sports must review whether they have the appropriate carefully controlled medical conditions in place before they can proceed, and secure the confidence of athletes, coaches and support staff.

"Given the wide-ranging input we have received from medical experts, we believe these pragmatic measures should provide further reassurance that a safe, competitive training environment can be delivered, as we work towards a restart of professional sport behind closed doors when it is safe to do so."

The current social-distancing rules will continue to apply during travel to training, equipment-sharing will be avoided where possible, and communal areas will mostly be expected to remain closed.

Top-level sport in England could restart behind-closed-doors from June 1 but spectators may not be able to attend venues until a coronavirus vaccine is found.

'11 v 11 training still some days away'

Sky Sports News reporter Geraint Hughes on the return of close-contact training at Premier League clubs:

This is a very positive step in the journey towards the resumption of sport and contact training does literally mean that, but you're not going to have training sessions at the various facilities up and down the country with 11 v 11.

There is very much an onus on the individual sports, and also on the medics at clubs and COVID-19 officers. They have risk assessments to do and risk mitigation as well.

Step one was training on an individual basis with social distancing. Step two now allows contact training, so you can go within two metres but only during training sessions and only for the absolute minimum time required.

Initially they'll probably do it in groups of two to three players, that's the advice that's been given by government, and slowly progress to towards larger groups of four to 12 players and ultimately 11 v 11 - but we are still some days from that happening.

Positive tests in football

Meanwhile, the second batch of testing for Premier League teams returned two more positive tests from two separate clubs, with top-flight sides remaining on course for a behind-closed-doors return to matches next month.

Premier League CEO Richard Masters said on Friday that curtailment of the 2019-20 season "is still a possibility".

The third round of tests are due to take place on Monday and Tuesday, ahead of a key vote on Wednesday over contact training, subject to government approval.

A handful of Premier League players, including Troy Deeney, Danny Rose and N'Golo Kante, have either voiced concerns about returning to training on the basis of health reasons or are not taking part in sessions.

Two positive cases at Hull City have been recorded following the 1014 tests which were undertaken at all 24 EFL Championship sides ahead of clubs returning to training on Monday, while no testing system is currently in place in Leagues One and Two.

Analysis: 'Most crucial week so far' for Premier League return - Supplement

Download the Sunday Supplement podcast on: Spotify | Apple | Castbox | Spreaker

The Premier League faces its "most crucial week so far" when it comes to a potential restart, with plans to step up training "in the balance," according to the Sunday Supplement panel.

Top-flight players have returned in socially distanced small groups but clubs face a key vote on Wednesday over contact training, subject to government approval.

Will a positive test percentage of 0.45 so far reassure players? How big a factor could the psychological barrier be when it comes to returning to action? And is season curtailment still an option?

Sunday Supplement guests Jason Burt, chief football correspondent at The Telegraph, Shaun Custis, head of sport at The Sun and The Times' sport writer Alyson Rudd joined Geoff Shreeves to discuss the latest challenges for a return to Premier League action.

Read their views here

Lewin: How long will it take for players to get fit?

The answer, as you'd expect, is complex. But there is one underlying consensus: match fitness is almost impossible to reach without competitive games.

Speaking on Monday's The Football Show, former England physio Gary Lewin outlined the complexities of returning to fitness, namely the differences between physical fitness and match fitness.

"The biggest issue they've got is getting them up to speed physically without the group sessions and contact sessions," Lewin said. "Normally in a pre-season you would start off with a couple of weeks of very light training, close contact rather than full contact, and then building up into contact sessions.

"You work on a players' strength, power, and reaction times, and then you go into contract training and friendlies, slowly building up the competition and intensity over a six to eight-week period.

"The uniqueness of this situation is that they have gone through their physical phase, what you'd call park running in phase one, and then they're going into phase two, where there is still no contact with social distancing, but trying to do some work with the football, and then they're going into full contact.

"They're going to miss out on the general conditioning of falling over, getting up, colliding with players, and that side of the game that you only get with intense training sessions and friendly matches, so there are going to be a few problems."

Read more from Gary Lewin here

Cricket, rugby plans

Earlier in May, the ECB said they hope England's players can begin one-on-one training soon after previously confirming that no professional cricket will be played in England and Wales until at least July 1.

A return date for Premiership Rugby remains unresolved with sides unlikely to resume training for at least another two weeks, following a meeting between club chief executives from all 12 sides with the Premiership Rugby League (PRL) on Wednesday.

Super League clubs have made plans to restart their campaign in August and hold ambitious targets for fans being allowed to watch games again in October.

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