County friendlies to be pilot events for fans' post-Covid return
Surrey-Middlesex game will stress-test government guidance
The UK government has confirmed that two county friendlies will be used as pilot events to stress-test the return of fans to sporting venues.
As revealed by ESPNcricinfo, a limited number of spectators - likely to be county members initially - will be allowed to attend pre-season fixtures in order to trial the government's guidance on the return of fans to elite sporting events, with a view to reopening all venues for fans with social-distancing measures in place from October.
Surrey's two-day friendly against Middlesex starting on July 26 is set to be one pilot event, and several other counties have arranged pre-season fixtures which could be open to a limited number of fans.
In a statement, Surrey said they were "looking forward to working with the government to enable a limited return of members to The Kia Oval next weekend". The statement said: "The club look forward to working with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority over the coming days and will make an announcement when arrangements have been finalised."
Fans attending will be provided with information about how the venue is minimising Covid-19 risks, and "must agree to a new code of behaviour obliging them to take full responsibility for themselves and others by not attending if they have any symptoms or have potentially been exposed to someone with COVID-19".
Social-distancing will be observed in seats, with a cap on tickets sold, and a crowd management plan in place to stagger entry and exit times. Additional hygiene facilities will be provided, and government advice suggests the creation of "additional isolation rooms" and screening upon entry into the ground.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, confirmed the move in a press conference on Friday morning. "From October, we intend to bring back audiences in stadia… These changes must be done in a Covid-secure way subject to the successful outcome of pilots," he said.
County chiefs remain confident that it will be possible to allow a small number of fans to attend Vitality T20 Blast games in September if trial events run smoothly, while the measures announced today seem to increase the likelihood of some spectators being permitted for the final of the first-class Bob Willis Trophy at Lord's at the end of the season.
"For months millions of us have felt the void of being unable to go to the match to support our team or attend a top-class sporting event. So I am pleased that we are now able to move forward with a plan to help venues safely reopen their doors to fans," said Nigel Huddleston MP, the Minister for Sport.
"I recognise that not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue, and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia.
"Although it will remain some time before venues are full to capacity, this is a major step in the right direction for the resumption of live spectator sport across the country."
An ECB spokesperson said: "From the outset of this crisis, we've worked in partnership with the UK government on the safe return of cricket, both at professional and recreational levels.
"The return of fans to stadia is the next step and we are pleased that this announcement allows cricket to be among the first pilot events. There is now a significant amount of work to carry out ahead of these pilots, and we will continue to work closely with the government to assess what additional planning and safety measures are needed for supporters to be able to return safely to cricket grounds."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98