Public health experts are urging UEFA to see sense and not allow thousands of fans to travel across Europe to attend the Champions League final in Istanbul, where covid cases are sky high.
UEFA is expected to confirm that visiting supporters will be allowed to attend the final at the Ataturk Stadium in Turkey.
With Chelsea and Manchester City now well placed to progress to the showpiece on May 29, English fans would face a 4,000-mile round trip to a country with one of the highest average daily infection rates in Europe.
The Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul is due to host the Champions League final this year
Chelsea earned a 1-1 draw away to Spanish giants Real Madrid on Tuesday and Manchester City won 2-1 at the home of Paris Saint-Germain, last night.
Bookmakers now see an all-English final as the most likely outcome.
While Turkey is not on the government’s ‘red list’ – countries from which travel to the United Kingdom is banned – the number of daily cases of Covid in Turkey is currently 16 times higher than in the UK, which has prompted experts to say ‘move the game to England’.
Turkish premier President Tayyip Erdogan has ordered a ‘full lockdown’ of the country starting today, which will last until May 17, in an attempt to drive the level of infection down, with schools closed and travel restricted. But there is still an exemption for international tourists as the countries tries to hold on to a crucial source of revenue.
‘It’s crazy and unnecessary to have the game in Turkey,’ said Professor Keith Neal, an expert in public health at the University of Nottingham.
Chelsea and Manchester City are odds on with bookmakers to make Champions League final
Bayern Munich beat Paris Saint-Germain in last year’s Champions League final but with no fans
‘I think there is going to be serious problems. Turkey is a Covid hot zone and it is likely to remain so in May. You cannot see it being better in five weeks.
UEFA and the Polish authorities are finalising plans to allow 10,000 fans to attend the Europa League final in Gdansk, next month.
Sportsmail revealed yesterday that the showpiece, due to take place at the 41,000-seat Gdansk Stadium on May 26, is now expected to be played in front of a quarter-full stadium and an announcement is due on Friday.
It raises the prospect of Manchester United and Arsenal playing out a European final in front of supporters, provided both teams can emerge from tough semi-final ties.
Experts spoken to by Sportsmail are less concerned about the health risks posed by playing in Poland in front of fans, compared to Turkey.
Poland has less than half the number of new Covid infections each day compared to Turkey, at 252 per million people. This is a similar number to Spain. Poland has also administered a first dose of covid vaccine to 21 per cent of its population, Spain has delivered one dose to 23%, compared to 16% in Turkey.
‘And the disease rate in Istanbul itself, like all major population centres, will be higher. UEFA have not realised they have a problem.
‘People will be travelling in crowded planes, passing through crowded airports and spending time in bars and restaurants. It is too risky.
‘I would move the game. Move it to England where you can manage it better. You could move it to England for the two English teams.’
On Tuesday, there were new 552 new confirmed cases of covid per million people in Turkey, compared to just 35 in the UK.
During the latest surge of cases, at its height in April, there were more than 60,000 new cases a day and more than 300 deaths.
Meanwhile, the vaccination programme lags behind most other European countries with only 16% of the population receiving at least one dose of vaccine, compared to almost half of UK residents.
Despite the high rates of infection, Turkey is desperate to preserve tourism and has granted an exemption from the restrictions to all foreign visitors during the current lockdown, according to local reports.
Last year Turkey saw a 70% fall in foreign visitors.
Flights are currently operating between the UK and Turkey. All passengers aged six years and above are required to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before departure. And there is currently no requirement to self-isolate once in Turkey.
The Ataturk Stadium, which was due to host the final last year before the latter stages of the blue riband competition were moved to Spain, can accommodate 76,000 fans.
While the number of available tickets has not been confirmed, UEFA reportedly told clubs at the quarter-final stage that 9,000 fans were expected to attend the final.
However, it is not the management of fans in the stadium that is causing concern.
UEFA is said to be confident that fans will be allowed to attend the Champions League final
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin prepared way for fans to attend Champions League final
‘The issue is not the stadium it is the travel and what people are doing when they are there,’ said Professor Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of Norwich.
‘It is bringing a lot of people together there may well be alcohol in excess.
‘I do not think it is a wise thing to do. From a public health perspective this is not a good idea at this time.
Professor Keith Neal says it is ‘crazy’ for fans to travel to Turkey for the Champions League final
‘Globally, there are more infections than ever and there are potentially new variants around.
‘So, from a global perspective holding big international events where people will probably not adhere to the guidance because they are overseas and there will probably be a lot of alcohol around does not seem a good idea.
‘For me, I would not consider it a worthwhile risk. Even though cases are dropping it is still going to be pretty high. There is no way Turkey is going to get it down to anywhere near the UK by then.’
The fast-moving nature of the pandemic causes additional concern to Professor Hunter. The emergence of the potentially more infectious Indian variant in the UK could, if it takes hold, present a risk to Turkey should fans travel there with it, he said.
UEFA’s president, Aleksander Cerefin cleared the way for fans to attend the Champions League final at an executive committee meeting in March
The European governing body lifted its restriction on the number of fans who can attend matches and it will remove a ban on travelling fans in May. The limit of 30 per cent stadium capacity was put in place in October in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, it is now up to governments in host countries to determine whether visiting fans will be allowed at matches and how many can travel. However, this is based on discussions between the governing body and the local authorities.
Last year’s Champions League final was played in front of empty stands.
Turkey’s lockdown is due to end on May 17, which is also the earliest date that UK residents will be allowed to travel abroad, under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Countries are preparing to allow fans to attend Euro 2020 matches across Europe in June
ODDS ON FOR AN ALL-ENGLISH FINAL
Bookmakers have made an all-English Champions League final odds on, after Chelsea earned a creditable draw away to Real Madrid and Manchester City won at Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals.
All-English final: 8/11
The bookies also fancy an all-England affair in the Europa League, final, too, which will be played in Gdansk on May 26. Tonight, Manchester United take on Roma and Arsenal are away to Villareal in the semi finals.
All-English Europa League final: 11/10
Both finals to be all-English: 11/4
Currently all overseas holidays are banned for UK residents.
However, yesterday, Grant Shapps spoke positively about travel restrictions being eased in May with the development of the NHS app, which would act as a covid passport to demonstrate a person has been vaccinated against the virus, has immunity or a negative test.
But his comments on Sky News left many unanswered questions about when the app will be ready and what the quarantine requirements will be when people return home.
Even if travel restrictions are eased after May 17 and the app is ready, the viability of travel to Turkey for fans may depend on the UK government’s traffic light system.
Where people are returning from red or amber countries they can expect to quarantine for 10 days.
Under the plans, countries will be designated a colour, red, amber, or green, which will determine the quarantine requirements on the return to the UK.
Mr Shapps told Sky News: ‘I have to say that so far the data does continue to look good from a UK perspective, notwithstanding those concerns about where people might be travelling to and making sure we’re protected from the disease being reimported.’
He added he will set out which countries fall into the ‘green’, ‘amber’ and ‘red’ categories under the new risk-based traffic light system ‘towards the beginning of May’.
Graphic shows how the NHS app could work as a covid passport using immunity and testing