It will be hard to quantify just how many lives Mikel Arteta saved by contracting the coronavirus.
The Arsenal manager testing positive on March 12 helped to ensure hundreds of thousands of people -- from fans to players and support staff -- were no longer at risk of being infected around the following weekend's English Premier League games.
“All the news we had was from China, then Italy and then Spain,” Arteta recalled. “Then you realize, ‘Wow, everybody can be exposed here.’”
And yet, the British government had been dismissing the danger of sports venues significantly spreading the new coronavirus, telling sports to carry on as usual even as the pandemic escalated.
It took Arteta being stricken with COVID-19 and Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi testing positive on the same night, forcing both squads into self-isolation, to jolt the world’s richest football competition into self-imposed exile.
As Arsenal reopened part of its training ground for players to run alone on Monday and the Premier League accelerated planning for “Project Restart” with the government, there is increased scrutiny of Downing Street downplaying the potential for sports to exacerbate the outbreak seven weeks ago.
By March 11, when the WHO declared a pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sensed how the decision not to ban sports events appeared increasingly out of step with other countries, particularly Italy. In a video posted on his Twitter account, Johnson reprised his old job as a journalist to interview Dr. Jenny Harries, Britain’s deputy chief medical officer.
“Tell us why so far the medical advice in this country is not to do that?” Johnson asked.
“In general,” Harries responded about the British model, “those sorts of events, big gatherings are not seen to be something which is going to have a big effect.”
At the time, only eight deaths from fewer than 500 confirmed coronavirus cases had been recorded in British hospitals. Now the death toll exceeds 20,000.
On the day Johnson was briefed by his medical adviser to allow sports to carry on as usual, 60,000 people packed into the Cheltenham horse racing festival and 52,000 supporters went to Liverpool’s Anfield stadium for the visit of Atletico Madrid.
“We don’t want to disrupt people’s lives unduly,” Harries told Johnson, citing British scientific modeling hours before kickoff in Liverpool.
Spain had already started to prohibit mass gatherings, yet 3,000 fans from its capital were able to fly to northwest England for the Champions League match.
It would be another five days before Johnson announced emergency workers would no longer be available for sports events and a further week for Britain to go into lockdown.
“There was a mistake made in terms of the governmental advice permitting these events,” said Prof. Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. “Mass gatherings should have been shut down much earlier as well as nonessential travel. I think those delays in those early weeks were quite damaging.”
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was unsettled at the time that Britain was not heeding the warnings from Italy, where Serie A had been suspended, about the measures required to slow the spread of the virus.
Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said it would be “scandalous” if cases of COVID-19 were traced back to the Champions League match featuring thousands of Spanish fans. Two universities in the city are working with the local authority to analyse the data, with the government experts not being drawn on a link yet.
“It would be very interesting,” Angela McLean, the government’s deputy chief scientific adviser, said last week, “to see in the future when all the science is done what relationship there is between the viruses that have circulated in Liverpool and the viruses that have circulated in Spain.”
In the southwest English region of Gloucestershire, which includes Cheltenham, there have been around double the COVID-19 deaths than in nearby areas, according to Health Service Journal data. The horse racing festival reported crowds of around 60,000 for each of the four days from March 9 to 13.
Professor Gabriel Scally, a former director of public health in the southwest of England, said the festival should never have been allowed to go ahead.
Event organizers insist it will be impossible to establish a link, but there has been unease in Ireland, from where tens of thousands of people traveled to the most prestigious jumps meeting in British horse racing.
“If Cheltenham was being held in Ireland," Ireland Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said, “I don’t think it would be on.”
The decision to allow sports events to restart will be informed by the experts who said there was “no rationale” to closing them down in the first place.
“The faster you respond, the faster you shut down, the faster you get a handle on how this virus is spreading and prevent large numbers of people getting infected, the faster you’re out the other side,” Sridhar said.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said on Monday that he was working with the Premier League “with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible,” with teams yet to play up to 10 games of the 38-fixture season. The league is planning on mass testing of the hundreds who will still be required at matches, which will be held without spectators.
There was an element of normality returning to British sport on Monday, with a news conference staged by Premier League club Watford even as the government maintains extreme social distancing by having reporters video calling into Downing Street briefings.
“I feel uncomfortable at this stage, even talking about football as a narrative, because there are people dying every day, there are stresses on the NHS (National Health Service) and that has to be our priority,” Watford chief executive Scott Duxbury said.
“Do I want to resume football? Absolutely. So when it is safe and the government says it is absolutely fine for players and all the support staff that follow football to return, then I am 100% behind that.”