Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that the next phase of England's roadmap out of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown will go ahead as planned on Monday, meaning that limited spectators may return to English racecourses from May 17.
As a result of restrictions easing across England as the Covid alert level moves from level four to level three in seven days, English tracks should be able to host 4,000 spectators or fill a venue to 50% of capacity, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), Racecourse Association (RCA) and The Horsemen's Group (GB) said in a joint statement following the Prime Minister's announcement. Planning is underway to allow owners to see their horses and meet with trainers and jockeys in the parade ring from this date, as a result of changes to elements of the existing raceday protocols. Plans were set out in February for British racing's easing of lockdown restrictions, aligned to the UK Government roadmap and its guidelines for sporting events.
Beginning on May 17 under current raceday restrictions, the Green Zone will be limited to key indoor working areas only, such as the weighing room, where existing infection control measures will remain in place, including social distancing, entry screening and mandatory face coverings. On most courses, all other areas including the parade ring and stables will be separated from the Green Zone, with entry screening reduced for trainers, stable staff, the media, and others. Social distancing will continue to apply, as required by government guidelines. Face coverings will be mandatory in the parade ring areas and indoors–in line with government guidance–but not elsewhere on course. These changes will start to be introduced at courses in England initially, with British racing seeking to have the same rules applied in Scotland and Wales. For more details on these raceday COVID-19 protocols, please go to www.britishhorseracing.com/.
Richard Wayman, Chief Operating Officer of the British Horseracing Authority, said, “It is extremely exciting that we are finally able to welcome racegoers back to our racecourses. It will allow racing's many fans to come back to the sport they love after more than a year away. We know there is a huge public demand for families and friends to meet up, outdoors, enjoy great food and drink and the unique social occasion of a race-meeting.
“In addition, from next week, racing can once again offer our owners the opportunity to feel much closer to the action on a racecourse by returning to the parade ring. Racing's leaders very much appreciate the commitment and patience shown by owners over the past year when their attendance and experience at racecourses has been restricted by the pandemic.”
David Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Racecourse Association (RCA), said, “This next step in the Government's roadmap is hugely important milestone in the recovery of British Racing. Racecourses are very excited to welcome racegoers back and to be able to offer them a full raceday experience whilst extending our provision for owners to whom the sport remain greater in for their continued support.
“Lockdown began almost 14 months ago and it has been a very challenging journey for the industry and for racecourses in particular though several false starts and aborted pilot events. May the 17th marks a key step on the return to normality.”
Charlie Liverton, Chief Executive of the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) said, “Owners have played a critical role in keeping horse racing going behind closed doors throughout the past 12 months, contributing over £30 million a month in training fees alone. Whilst the invoices have continued, the ability to go racing and be a part of the race day experience has been greatly hindered as the country, and the wider industry, dealt with the pandemic at large. It is therefore a welcome step that come May 17th owners can get a step closer to the action with a return to the parade ring. There is more work to be done and we will continue to work with the BHA and RCA to improve the race day experience for owners, whilst recognising this milestone in the Government's roadmap.”
In 2020, racing halted in mid-March as the pandemic took hold, and did not resume until June 1 behind closed doors. There have been a few limited pilot events with spectators, but since the new lockdown began in late December, there have been no spectators at racecourses.
British racing is also liaising with officials at national and local level to press for a return to full crowds. The full return of spectators, however, will not start until at least June 21 according to the UK Governent roadmap. The UK Government is not likely to confirm its plans to further reduce COVID-19 restrictions until a week prior to that date.
The BHA's Chief Medical Adviser, Dr. Jerry Hill, said, “Low COVID-19 prevalence, rising vaccination levels and the wider availability of NHS testing have put British racing in a position to ease some of the infection control measures that our sport has followed so diligently since June last year.
“Like other sports, we are taking a measured approach, with incremental changes to balance protecting key raceday personnel with the return of a more traditional racecourse experience, particularly for owners and trainers.
“For now, all those going to a meeting, as participants, owners, or racing fans, will still be asked to observe social distancing and other COVID restrictions as in other areas of life. If we can all maintain those responsible behaviours for the next few weeks, it will help speed the return of 100% attendances and the further relaxation and in due course removal of physical COVID-19 infection control measures.
“I also want to thank all of our sport's participants for continuing to follow our on-course protocols, particularly around the weighing room complex and other close contact areas like the parade ring. This will help ensure that courses remain safe environments as the number of attendees increases.”