As the huge economic and social costs of the lockdown become more apparent, attention is understandably turning to the exit strategy and, in particular, which of the banned activities can safely be restarted. Professional sport should be one of the first items on the list.
Policy disagreements over the coronavirus lockdown have been somewhat unfairly characterised as pitting epidemiologists, concerned only about public safety, against heartless economists prepared to trade the deaths of loved ones for the sake of pounds and pence.
Of course, in reality, economists care about saving lives too, while public health experts understand that even health policy decisions involve some sort of trade-off in which deaths averted cannot be the only consideration. And in this case, the costs of the restrictions are not just economic. A long, strict lockdown might save lives in the short run but cost lives in the long run – from suicides to cuts in health spending caused by a subsequent depression. Although harder to quantify, we can’t ignore the huge social costs caused by the constraints on our personal freedoms: the church services unattended, the grannies left alone, charity work left undone and so on.
That doesn’t mean the current approach is not justified; clearly we must avoid overwhelming the NHS at the peak of the infections. But as capacity in the NHS is built up and, hopefully, new cases start to plateau off, it's important both that the Government focuses on its eventual plan to exit the lockdown and also that it shares its thinking with the public to enable sensible challenge and debate.
In a report released last weekend, economists Roger Lyons and Paul Ormerod have tried to get this debate started, arguing for a phased lifting of restrictions according to a traffic light system: red indicating only the restrictions that can be safely lifted at the earliest opportunity, even while there might still be a significant number of new infections; amber measures can be relaxed somewhat further down the line and even only then with care; green restrictions should only be lifted once public health experts give us a complete all-clear.
Such a phased return to normality provides a sensible framework for decision making but there is plenty of scope to argue about the detail. Lyons and Ormerod list professional sport in the green category on the grounds that large scale public events provide the perfect conditions for starting a fresh surge in infections.
This would be a missed opportunity. Many high-profile sporting events are perfectly viable without the presence of an audience if they are shown live on television. As long as players and officials are rigorously tested prior to training and matches, events can take place with a high degree of confidence about safety.
The importance of professional sport to the economy is often overlooked. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimates that professional sport contributes £39 billion a year to the economy and provides employment to over half a million people, nearly two per cent of all jobs in the UK. And those numbers don’t factor in the value of the boost to the country’s morale that bringing back live sport on the telly would bring us.
Yes, football on TV without the crowds will lack some of the atmosphere but it is better than no football at all. Indeed, if the UK were to take a lead on this and show, say, two Premier League games a day starting soon after Easter, the whole world would be clamouring to buy the rights.
The case is even stronger for non-contact sports where some measure of social distancing between players can provide another layer of safety. There is no reason why golf or tennis tournaments should not go ahead quite safely if maintained solely as televised events. The decisions to cancel Wimbledon and the Open seem premature but there are plenty of other tournaments that could be given the go-ahead.
Some might argue that cricket’s County Championship is intrinsically socially distanced with, shall we say, limited numbers of live spectators. But let’s plan now to get international cricket back on the television just in time for the start of June when the England versus West Indies test series is scheduled to begin.
The various sporting authorities embraced the shutdown very early, understandably wanting all the focus to be on averting an immediate public health crisis. As the government starts to look to what happens once we get beyond the peak, it should give a clear steer to governing bodies and encourage them to start preparing to get events back on our screens within a matter of weeks rather than months.
The Government should follow up with a plan to relax restrictions soon afterwards for those recreational sports such as tennis and golf where it is easiest to enforce sensible social distancing.
Restarting professional and amateur sport in a targeted and careful way is a low-risk, high-benefit policy. It would give a spark to a crucial economic sector. More than that, it would give millions of people across the UK and beyond what we all need most at the moment: hope.