There is a growing sense of optimism that small gatherings of crowds at sporting events could return as early as the next two weeks following a reportedly positive meeting between the Government and leaders of the largest sporting bodies in Dublin on Friday.

The Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, Catherine Martin TD; the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly TD; the Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for Sport and the Gaeltacht, Jack Chambers TD; and the acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn; met by videoconference with representatives of the sport sector to discuss the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chief Executive of Sport Ireland, John Treacy; the Interim Chief Executive of the Football Association of Ireland, Gary Owens; the Ard Stiúrthóir of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Tom Ryan; and the Chief Executive of the Irish Rugby Football Union, Philip Browne were on the call from the sporting side.

The sporting bodies were asked as a matter of urgency to prepare recommendations based on international experience and best practice about how sport can continue as a participation element and return as a spectator one as early as the publication of the Government’s long term roadmap in the middle of this month.

The current restrictions on crowds attending matches and on restrictions in terms of training in groups were put in place until next Sunday, September 13th.

Experience

The experience of returning crowds to games in Britain and across Europe will be drawn on to provide evidence-based information that will hopefully give rise to turnstiles opening for games, in a safe manner.

If all pubs are to reopen as part of the plan, it would look bizarre in the extreme to be able to watch a game inside from behind glass with a pint in your hand but not to walk outside in the fresh air to sit in a stand.

Intercounty Gaelic Games, international and provincial rugby, the culmination of the domestic soccer season and the visit of AC Milan to Tallaght Stadium could all be back in play for spectators if this latest phase of engagement goes well and behaviours at the grounds as well as away from them do not lead to health concerns.

As part of the meeting between the Ministers and Sport, the contribution of the sports community in terms of assistance with the Community Call, positive action with their own local hinterlands and the use of sporting facilities for test centres were all recognised as being of real value in the fight against Covid-19.

Expert Group

The work of the Expert Group on sport also came up and was marked as a strong positive.

The Expert Group has held 15 meetings thus far and has considered over 50 protocols from a wide range of sports, all of which have now resumed activity.

The Expert Group has also developed specific guidance for the sport sector, such as the guidelines for travel by high performance and professional athletes which facilitated the travel to Bulgaria by the men’s senior international soccer team for their UEFA Nations League fixture last evening, and the return of elite athletes to international training and performance.

The Ministers acknowledged the high level of compliance with the protocols and other public health guidance at all levels of sport. They voiced their appreciation for the ongoing commitment by coaches, mentors and officials to ensure public health guidance is adhered to at all competitive events and training sessions.

The sporting representatives briefed the Ministers on progress in the sport sector and the challenges they are facing as a consequence of the current restrictions.

The Ministers noted the concerns raised and confirmed that these would be considered when the Government next meets to review the public health regulations.

Dialogue

“I convened the meeting today to facilitate a dialogue for the sport sector with Minister Donnelly and the acting CMO,” said Minister Martin.

“Our discussions were wide-ranging and informative, covering not just the issue of spectators but also other challenges facing the sport sector. I have been very impressed by the commitment throughout the sport sector to support their communities during the pandemic and by the flexible and innovative approaches they have taken to return to training and competition in a responsible and safe way.”

“Sport is a vital part of Irish life and my officials and Sport Ireland will continue to support the sector through the challenging winter months ahead.”

“I can assure the sport sector that your concerns will be raised at the Cabinet table as we discuss the new roadmap to be published in the middle of the month.”

Protecting

“I was delighted to meet with the GAA, FAI and IRFU today to discuss protecting sports during the COVID-19 pandemic,” added Minister Donnelly.

“These sporting organisations are a vital part of life in Ireland. They really stepped up to provide vital support to their communities in recent months, and their contribution is greatly appreciated.”

“The coming months are about suppressing the virus while opening up our society and economy – sport is a key part of this. Government, the Expert Group on the Return to Sport and sporting bodies will continue to work together as we navigate our way through this pandemic.”

“Today’s meeting was a good opportunity to hear from the sporting bodies who have been impacted severely by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Minister of State Chambers.

Resilience

“The current restrictions on gathering sizes and spectators are just the latest challenge the sport sector has had to overcome. I have been heartened by the resilience of Irish sport which has ensured that children and adults across Ireland have enjoyed a summer of active participation including the traditional summer camps.”

“As the schools reopen and we move into autumn, we must anticipate the coming challenges. I know the Expert Group on Return to Sport has begun its consideration of these issues and I am confident that sporting activity will continue throughout the winter months.”

“Minister Martin and I will share with our Cabinet colleagues the key elements of today’s discussion to inform the next steps we take as Government.”

Minister Martin asked the groups and sports leaders to help the existing Expert Group on Return to Sport to explore the restrictions around sporting events in the context of Covid-19, including examining international best practice. Ms Martin wants the group to come back with considerations that can be brought to health officials as part of preparation for the upcoming whole-of-government roadmap on resilience, due to be released later this month. The Minister told the sporting bodies: “Time is of the essence. You have an incredible role to play.”