Kamran Abbasi: Sport and theatre—victims of the pandemic failure that shall not be named 

An end to public entertainment is easily portrayed as inevitable during the pandemic, but in the UK it’s a direct result of the government’s failings, writes Kamran Abbasi

I’ve entered a parallel universe. International cricket is being played in front of many thousands of spectators in New Zealand and Australia. Everything looks as normal as it could be. In South Korea, theatres have played to near capacity. The contrast with the UK and other countries that are struggling to control covid-19 is stark. Damage to sport and culture is needless and why it happened in 2020 highlights a central failing of pandemic response. In the UK, your football match or your theatre show wasn’t cancelled by SARS-CoV-2; it was the misguided quartet of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, and Dido Harding.

First New Zealand, which has suppressed covid-19 as well as any nation. When Pakistan’s cricketers arrived in New Zealand they were told exactly how they were required to isolate, behave, and wear masks. They signed agreements to confirm their intent to comply with New Zealand’s covid-19 restrictions. The cricket stars were tested before leaving Pakistan and tested again after periods of isolation. Some of them breached those rules, and New Zealand’s health officials took a dim view, reminding Pakistan that the tour was in jeopardy unless the rules were followed. The players complied and reaped the rewards of a near normal cricket tour. New Zealand controlled its borders and minimised the risk to its population. Elite spectator sport went unhindered.

At the same time, England’s cricketers were travelling home from South Africa after two players initially tested positive for covid-19. England’s tour was nearing an end in any case, and some concerns surfaced over how stringently South Africa’s squad observed covid bubble rules. But the clear difference between South Africa and New Zealand is that New Zealand has managed to all but eliminate SARS-CoV-2. The same is true of South Korea and Taiwan, for example, where sport and culture remain open to the public. 

The lesson is that once covid-19 is adequately suppressed, normality without transmission of covid-19 is possible, provided that populations don’t baulk at the minor inconveniences of mask wearing, distancing, and complying with testing and tracing protocols.

An end to public entertainment is easily portrayed as an inevitable consequence of the pandemic. The priorities, of course, are preventing premature deaths and ensuring economic stability; jobs and lives first. But sport and performing arts are important for wellbeing. The question is did they need to be so badly affected that, for example, football clubs face liquidation, actors are out of work, and people are deprived of entertainment?

The UK government’s first mistake was to react too slowly. Mass sporting events were allowed. We were told that unless these went ahead people would instead congregate in pubs and indoor spaces, where they would be exposed to greater risk. We now know that full capacity gatherings at football and horse racing played a part in amplifying the first wave of covid-19. While it was sensible not to encourage people to meet indoors, allowing outdoor mass gatherings with a background of rising infection rates was also reckless.

When professional sport returned in the summer following the first period of lockdown, it returned without spectators. That was an overreaction. Unregulated mass gatherings would increase risk but several thousand fans, suitably masked and distanced in a large outdoor stadium, was feasible. Even now, with a small number of fans allowed at football matches when regions return to lower covid-19 tiers, it seems that those restrictions remain unnecessarily harsh. More fans than 2000 could safely occupy a 50 000 capacity outdoor stadium.

It’s hard to imagine that the ruling bodies of cricket and football, and clubs themselves, are unwilling to work harder to accommodate more fans when restrictions ease. Just as restaurants adapted, clubs can do too. The government, for unclear reasons and with a track record of lenient policy making, has decided to make a show of clamping down on spectator sports.

A similar logic is applicable to the performing arts. Why was it beyond the ingenuity and determination of theatre owners to stay open for longer with strict masking and distancing, especially in theatres with modern ventilation? Although many artists were rightly dismayed when rich production companies closed theatres and did little to support them, the government, the key player, was almost a bystander. Once theatres did devise plans for re-opening with audiences, the government seemed unwilling to fully support a world class industry to re-open as many theatres as possible, and to keep them open once restrictions were stiffened.

Not enough was done to “normalise” sport and performing arts as might have been. But, eventually, rising infection rates make any sense of normality impossible—and this is why the complaint lands at the door of Johnson, Sunak, Hancock, and Harding. New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan can maintain a heavy semblance of normality because they have successfully suppressed covid-19 in their populations. 

They have done this by securing their borders, delivering clear and consistent messaging, and operating effective test, trace, and isolate strategies. The measures have been swift, decisive, and rigorously implemented. The result is public trust and compliance with pandemic policies. Short term pain for long term gain.

By contrast, the UK’s Brexit government hasn’t controlled its borders. Johnson’s messaging has created confusion. His support of Dominic Cummings’s breach of covid-19 rules eroded public trust. Dithering and delay over each escalation of measures, as Johnson and Sunak did over the second lockdown, and lifting restrictions too soon, has led to more illness and deaths than was necessary.

But the central failing is test, trace, and isolate, the primary tool to control infection rates. The government backed antibody and lateral flow tests are problematic, from mishandled procurement at the taxpayer’s expense to confused implementation and overstated accuracy. Why did the UK decide to “invest” in new tests when tests from South Korea and elsewhere were already available? The focus on mass testing has distracted from the hapless implementation of contact tracing and isolation, with too few contacts identified and hence not enough people isolating. The government’s financial support for those isolating is so low that it is a deterrent rather than an incentive.

Instead of accepting this fundamental failure, the government—especially Hancock and Harding—have spun a line that the system is working well and is somehow “world class.” It’s the skeleton in the cupboard; the elephant in the room; the scandal that shall not be named. Because of this, covid-19 is now out of control in the UK; hospitals are full, elective surgery and procedures are delayed, staff are dismayed and demoralised, and people are dying prematurely. 

The knock-on effect is that life can’t be “normal,” and sport and the performing arts, and especially the artists, are knocked for six. The UK’s pandemic response has falsely claimed to be world beating when it is anything but, especially in the fundamental requirement of an effective test, trace, and isolate system. The government is willing to blow billions chasing the moonbeams of its Moonshot testing scheme, but is slow to loosen its purse strings when asked to support the stars of the performing arts. 

Ironically, it is the truly world class artists of sport, music, and theatre whose industries have been first in line to be damaged by the government’s self-congratulatory, brass-necked, Trumpian appropriation of “world beating” to cover its pandemic failures. 

Kamran Abbasi is an executive editor at The BMJ. He is the author of the new book Englistan: An immigrant’s journey on the turbulent wings of Pakistan cricket. Twitter @KamranAbbasi