Government Shovels 3,000 People Into Horse-Racing Festival Hours After Covid Ban Announced

Organisers were eventually told that, from Thursday, the event must be held behind closed doors – but thousands are already there.

Health officials on Wednesday ordered a four-day horse racing festival in Doncaster to be held behind closed doors – but not before more than 3,000 spectators had attended the first day of the event which was being held as a government trial.

According to the Doncaster Free Press, more than 3,600 spectators were set descend on the St Leger Festival on Wednesday, with that number rising to more than 6,000 over the following three days of the four-day event.

But a last-minute intervention from local health officials means that the races from Thursday to Saturday will be held without any spectators in the stands.

“On the grounds of public health and public safety I have instructed the course to hold the St Leger Festival behind closed doors from tomorrow,” said Dr Rupert Suckling, director of public health for Doncaster.

The races were being used by the government as a pilot event to investigate how large sporting events could return during the Covid-19 crisis, but thousands of people had signalled their concern that the races could undo months of hard work to control the virus. Even the town’s mayor opposed the plan and described it as an “imposition”.

The gates opened for the festival just hours after the government released a late-night announcement on Tuesday stating that from next week it would be illegal to meet up in groups of more than six people.

Almost 6,000 people had signed a petition calling for the four-day festival to be called off, citing fears that the work the Doncaster public has put in to minimise the impact of the virus will be undone by the influx of visitors.

In a statement on the petition page, entitled “Stop the St Leger, Protect OUR Town”, Chris Brodhurst-Brown – a district councillor for the Armthorpe area of Docaster, wrote: “Doncaster people have worked tremendously hard and made many sacrifices to keep Covid-19 levels in the town comparatively low. Our health and caring services have worked tirelessly to protect us.

“We feel that to hold the St Leger in 2020 will create large amounts of unnecessary risk and could undo the amazing efforts of people in our community.

“To put 6,000 people together in one place, over several days, with alcohol in play, is an insult to those who have gone without seeing family for a very long time, those who have assiduously shielded for many months, those key workers who have worked their socks off whilst literally risking their lives, and to all of us who have played the game and followed the advice.”

The petition calls on Doncaster’s mayor, Ros Jones, to work with the police to stop the event from going ahead at all.

On Tuesday, Jones published an updated statement. that slammed the “government imposed” festival as a “major risk”.

She wrote: “My personal opinion remains that the festival is a major risk for the borough that I would rather not see happen but there are no current grounds that can be escalated for it to be held behind closed doors.

“This event, I reiterate, has been imposed upon the borough by government as part of a national pilot for spectators to return to sporting events.

“I fully recognise the need to get back to some sort of normality and appreciate the economic benefits that the St Leger Festival brings to Doncaster but I believe the risk is too great as we are seeing rising infection rates nationally.”

Health experts at Doncaster Council initially gave the event the go ahead after determining that it had surpassed the requirements set in 10 different tests, which include no significant increase in Doncaster’s Covid rate prior to the event, and ensuring that no one from areas with Covid-19 restrictions can enter.

According to ticketing information published ahead of the races, half of racegoers are from Doncaster, 25% from South Yorkshire, 20% from Yorkshire and 5%from elsewhere.

Nearby West Yorkshire is already subject to enhanced Covid-19 restrictions following identified outbreaks – with fears that the races could increase the prevalence of outbreaks across other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, criticising the government’s decision to press ahead with the Doncaster races, some have pointed to Matt Hancock’s close links with the racing industry.

As highlighted by the Guardian in a June article, the health secretary is the MP for Newmarket – a major centre for horse racing – and “receives tens of thousands of pounds in donations from wealthy racehorse owners, trainers and other members of the sport’s establishment”.

Dido Harding, who runs the government’s Test, Track and Trace effort, also holds a board position with the influential Jockey Club, which runs a number of major racing events including the Cheltenham Festival.

Approached on Wednesday morning for comment about what the announcement of new restrictions meant for large events, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) directed HuffPost UK to a comment Hancock made on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday morning.

The event has been compared to the Cheltenham Festival, which ended days before the UK went into full lockdown and was attended by around 250,000 people.

While senior council figures warned against the validity of comparisons, The Guardian reported in April that Gloucestershire hospitals NHS trust, which covers Cheltenham, had recorded 125 deaths – more than double the total at two trusts in Bristol which had 58 deaths each and Bath, which had 46 deaths.

Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, described the Cheltenham Festival as “the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus,” while GP Dr Hilary Jones said the event had been a “disaster waiting to happen”.

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