By Aidan Healy and Sean Cody of DAC Beachcroft LLP Law Firm Dublin, Republic of Ireland
The emergence of the Covid-19 Pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we all live, work and play.
The first restrictions came into effect on 13 March, resulting in the closure of all colleges, schools, childcare facilities and in effect the banning of all sporting and cultural events.
A full lockdown came into effect on 27 March. The current restrictions are in place in the form of the Health Act 1947 (Section 31A -Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 (as amended). In essence, these provide that people cannot leave their place of residence without reasonable excuse. There are then a list of things set out which are considered to be a reasonable excuse. Sporting competition and indeed collective training of any sort have been banned.
On 18 May, Ireland began the first phase of a five phase ‘Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business – https://www.gov.ie/en/news/58bc8b-taoiseach-announces-roadmap-for-reopening-society-and-business-and-u/ – which allowed for the reopening of golf clubs and tennis courts.
A ‘Return to Sport Expert Group’ has also been established by the Government to provide guidance to Ireland’s sporting bodies to prepare for the phased return to sporting activity in line with the Roadmap.
In this Post, we will look at the effects this virus has had on Irish sport and also review how the Government’s Roadmap will impact on sport.
Impact on Irish Sport
The League of Ireland is Ireland’s top-level club soccer competition. In the ordinary course of events, it would have finished at the end of March 2020, but has now been postponed indefinitely. There being no TV rights deal to speak of, many of the clubs are heavily reliant on gate receipts and they have laid off players in response to the falling revenues.
The Football Association of Ireland (“FAI”) was in significant financial trouble prior to the advent of the Covid-19 Pandemic and matters have surely worsened significantly since then. The FAI recently confirmed that the ban on all football under its jurisdiction is extended to 20 July, with the exception of four clubs – Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Bohemians – who will be invited to return to training initially, followed by a return to playing, in a behind closed doors tournament, as part of a pilot programme for a return to football for everyone.
In terms of revenues, Ireland’s main professional sport is rugby. The 2020 Six Nations, Champions Cup, Pro14 and the Summer tour to Australia have all been postponed and it is not clear when professional rugby can resume. The Irish Rugby Football Union (“IRFU”) recently agreed pay deferrals with employees, including professional players contracted, ranging from 10 to 50% of salaries of those earning more than €25,000. While Irish rugby was certainly in a much stronger financial position than its soccer counterpart, the IRFU has always emphasised the importance of the international game to fund the provincial teams, namely, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster.
Under World Rugby medical guidelines, on return, players will be required to sign a document in which they accept the risk, raised by the Covid-19 Pandemic, to themselves and their families relating to un-intended transmission of the virus.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (“GAA”) governing the two other main sports in Ireland, Gaelic football and hurling. Both games are amateur, but the All-Ireland Football and Hurling Championships attract crowds of up to 80,000 during the Summer months, as well as demanding almost professional-level commitment from players and coaches. The GAA has indicated that it does not foresee the return of its games while social distancing remains in place. This could conceivably be for a number of years.
The Roadmap to Recovery
On 1 May, the Government published its Roadmap to reopen gradually the country.
Phase one commenced earlier this week and allowed golf courses and tennis courts to reopen. Phase five is scheduled to commence on 10 August (this is, of course, subject to change), but there is confusion as to when most sporting activities may be in a position to re-commence. For example, phase four (20 July) refers to permitting sports team leagues (e.g. soccer and GAA) but only where limitations are placed on the numbers of spectators and where social distancing can be maintained. It is not clear how social distancing can be maintained in such team sports.
Phase three envisages “behind closed doors” sporting activities events where arrangements are in place to enable participants to maintain social distancing. Phase five may permit sports spectatorship only in accordance with attendance restrictions and where social distancing can be complied with, while Horse racing will be Ireland’s first sport to return to any meaningful degree. ‘Behind closed doors’ racing will recommence on 8 June in Ireland.
In recent days, a ‘Return to Sport Expert Group’ has also been established by the Government to provide guidance to Ireland’s sporting bodies to prepare for the phased return to sporting activity in line with the Roadmap. This Group’s input is clearly required as the Roadmap does not provide clarity on many of the issues raised; and perhaps could not, given that it deals with almost every conceivable aspect of society.
The return to sport and particularly contact sports, such as soccer, rugby and GAA, seems uncertain despite the guidance of the Roadmap. With the implementation of each phase, the Government has indicated that it will not allow progression to the next phase unless the rate of infection (known as the R rate) remains below 1. It is currently estimated to be 0.5.
What is clear, however, is that the many benefits of sport, in terms of physical and mental health, not to mention the social aspects of sport, need to be weighed in the balance when considering the public health issues which arise in relation to a return to play.
Aidan Healy and Sean Coady may be contacted by e-mail respectively at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and ‘email@example.com’