Project Restart: Effing Absurd
It’s been a while – too long – I hope you’re well. I hope your family and friends are well. I hope you’re coping okay with lockdown.
This has been a pretty difficult period for everyone. I consider myself lucky, but it’s still not easy. My girlfriend is shielding, we live separately. I miss her terribly. Like many others, I have not seen family or friends – or anyone, aside from delivery drivers, the postwoman and neighbours – since this all began. I am lucky enough to still have my job which has been largely unaffected aside from the move to working from home. My work has allowed me to retain a sense of purpose and a routine.
Outside work, I have enjoyed continuing to record podcasts (The Extra Inch, our Tottenham Hotspur podcast) throughout the period for the same reason – a source of purpose – and for a chance to catch up with mates as a distraction from the repetitiveness. I spoke to The Guardian for this piece on podcasting in the pandemic.
My dad was briefly unwell at the beginning of the pandemic. As it turned out, he had pneumonia. It was an incredibly worrying time, and my heart goes out to anyone who has suffered loss or has had similar concerns for the health of their loved ones.
I had mixed feelings when I saw Harry Kane, Tanguy Ndombele, Son Heung-min et al return to training. On one hand: man, had I missed these guys. It was lovely to see them, their familiar faces. It felt normal, it felt every day. We’re so used to seeing these training clips – shooting drills, pressing drills. It briefly lifted me out of what has become the ‘new normal’ (as everyone keeps saying) at home. On the other hand: why on earth is this happening now? We’re all locked down – for good reason – and we’re sending these men to their non-essential work when the virus is not even close to being suppressed in our country.
Over the past month I have recorded two podcasts with Alex Benham. He is brilliant. Alex is a listener of The Extra Inch and he got in touch with us (podcast at TheExtraInch dot co dot uk.) having heard Nathan A Clark exclaim that the idea of restarting the Premier League was ‘fucking absurd’.
Alex is a researcher working on the history of public health. He is undertaking a PhD at Oxford University and has spent the last two years researching pandemics and government responses to pandemics. He is well qualified to put what we’re all going through now into a historical context, and also to make observations about our response.
I thought it would be really useful to invite Alex to converse with me in blog form about Covid-19 and, in particular, the Premier League’s response to it and their intentions going forward.
Alex, we spoke at length on the podcast about the historic echoes of this. You talked me through the Mumbai plague and the Spanish flu, and the government responses to each, but what are the headlines here?
So the obvious headline is the striking parallels between these pandemics in the past and this one – the novel coronavirus – that is currently in the process of redefining the present. The British state’s response to both Bubonic Plague in colonial Mumbai (1896-1920), and the Spanish Flu in mainland Britain (1918-1919), is characterised by three key features. Firstly, the authorities attempt to deny the severity of the pandemic. In Mumbai, the first reports of the plague reached the British in May 1896, but they didn’t officially acknowledge its presence until October, 6 months later. Secondly, they delay acting to contain the spread of disease – Spanish Flu reached Britain in May 1918, but the authorities delayed taking proper measures until the Autumn. Thirdly, these denials and delays are driven by a desire to preserve the economy at all costs, even if that is a heavy cost to life. In Mumbai, the priority of the British was to keep the city’s thriving port open, and maintain India’s trade with the rest of the world. In 2020, as the British Government try and push people back to work amidst a pandemic – after first denying its severity, then delaying their response – it’s not hard to see the parallels.
We have history in not responding decisively then. We have dithered, and there’s a discussion to be had around the reason for this dithering – whether it is a strategy to attempt to reassure the public, an attempt to maintain the economy for as long as possible, or simply indecision. I think it’s useful to have this historical knowledge of previous responses to frame the discussion. You spoke in a lot more detail about this on the first podcast we did together (The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd) – I had no idea of the parallels and it was fascinating to learn about those pandemics, though shocking to hear about the mass loss of life. I put a trigger warning on the first podcast because it is not content that everyone will be comfortable with.
Let’s move on to the football because that is the purpose of this blog. Here, there is also some historic significance which bears repeating. The Spanish flu had a direct impact on football, right?
Yes it did; although national competitions were suspended for the First World War, regional leagues continued. This meant competitive football was played throughout the worst period of the Spanish Flu – late 1918 – and probably contributed to its spread. Chelsea, for example, played three home games in November 1918 – Brentford, Millwall and Tottenham – each time with more than 10,000 people at Stamford Bridge. In that same month, the local area saw 100 deaths from influenza. Two Chelsea players went on to contract Spanish Flu – Logan and Ford –as did two of the club’s vice presidents – Hayes-Fisher and Joynson-Hicks. Elsewhere, footballers had begun to die: Angus Douglas, the former Chelsea outside right, Jack Allan, a forward for Nottingham Forest and John Pattinson, a winger for Doncaster Rovers. All were under the age of 35 when they died. Douglas was just 29. Even more tragically, Douglas’s wife also died of the virus, leaving their daughter orphaned.
It would be very easy to skim over that. Old, dead people. Sad. Re-read it, but this time insert the names of current players and officials in the place of Logan, Ford, Hayes-Fisher, Joynson-Hicks, Douglas, Allan and Patttison. Allow the tragedy to become more tangible, closer.
The Premier League has commenced its Project Restart plan before ‘lockdown’ has ended. 1,000 people – players and club officials – are being tested regularly for Covid-19. If they test positive, they go into isolation for seven days. But Alex, you’re not convinced by the approach to testing, are you?
So the Premier League is depending on a program of bi-weekly qPCR tests (to give them their full name, Reverse Transcription Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction tests) to protect its players and staff. The procedure is relatively simple, you take a swab sample – usually from the back of the throat – and test it to see if it contains a significant quantity of viral RNA (the molecule that stores the genetic code of the coronavirus). The problem with coronavirus is that – like most pulmonary viruses – the quantity of the virus in someone’s respiratory system varies massively from person to person – some will have large quantities, some almost none at all. The quantity also varies according to the stage of the infection – most importantly, some people will only have a detectable quantity of the virus in their system for a few days after the beginning of the infection. This is one of the reasons the coronavirus qPCR test can have a higher false negative test rate – i.e. missing the virus even though someone has the infection.
According to Dr James Gill at Warwick Medical School – when tested alone, the PCR test has a 66.7% detection rate within the first week – so about 67% of people who have coronavirus will test positive on the PCR test. Avi Lasarow, who is the Chief Executive of the company (Prenetics) providing the qPCR tests to the League, claims the test is 98.8% accurate. My scepticism about this claim is partly a product of the science behind it, and partly a consequence of the person making it. In 2015, Lasarow settled a court case with the Federal Trade Commission. The charge? Making ‘unfair or deceptive’ claims about a skin cancer test app sold by his company.
Players are likely to be mixing with others who have coronavirus but are not testing positive or not yet testing positive. The virus could spread to other players, to coaches and officials and beyond – to their families, housemates and members of the public.
Training is different – players train in small groups. Initially it was contact-free, though that soon changed.
The idea that players can quickly change learned behaviours and practices -which are so embedded into their ways of working and lifestyles and have been since they were children – is at worst, whimsical, and at best, hopeful. Even if the training pitch is a relative safe space, the changing rooms and any other inside areas are going to prove a logistical nightmare. I worry when I think of the kitchen and toilets in the office that I work in. A training ground is different – 30+ players and coaches with streaming noses, panting and puffing. And that’s before we even consider the logistics around the matches themselves.
On the follow-up podcast (The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd… Part 2) we asked a question from Seamus Harte (@Seamus_Harte).
Seamus nailed it. Why are the Premier League pressing ahead with this? Money is the main and possibly only reason. The longer that football-less society continues, the more football clubs lose money. The fear is that clubs will go out of business without the money that football generates. In the Premier League, where the risk of clubs going bankrupt is lower, the issues are that clubs will lose money and become less competitive – they will no longer be able to afford the best players. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that Premier League fans look towards the Bundesliga. The more Premier League players look towards the Bundesliga. Alex, what do you think will happen if we just crack on?
Lets get one thing straight. The week the Bundesliga returned, less than 1,000 people in Germany were becoming infected with coronavirus every day. In Britain, the same week, around 20,000 people per day were becoming infected. The Bundesliga came back because Germany had suppressed the virus. The Premier League is coming back because Britain has failed to suppress the virus, and is desperate for a distraction from the destruction being wrought by this failure. If the Premier League go ahead with this plan, players and staff are going to get sick. This week the Daily Mail reported that the Premier League has been approached by one club executive who, in the context of Covid-19, is ‘concerned about a corporate manslaughter prosecution.’ Amidst all the excitement at football’s return, clubs are quietly considering what to do if players start dying.
There is some resistance. Some players are standing up for themselves and their communities. Black players in particular. We know that the BME community is disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Alex, you discussed all of this on the follow-up podcast, and I think it’s important that we highlight the key points again here.
The reality is that Covid-19 deaths are twice as high for BME people as they are for white people in Britain, and almost four times as high for those from a Black British African background. This disproportionate death toll is partly a result of the fact that BME people are over-represented in the riskiest jobs – a ‘third of all working-age Black Africans are employed in key worker roles, 50% more than the share of the White British population.’ Even if we just look at hospitals, ‘Pakistani, Indian and Black African men are respectively 90%, 150% and 310% more likely to work in healthcare than white British men.’ This goes all the way back to the end of the Empire, the deliberate recruitment of commonwealth migrants to the NHS and Transport for London. Secondly BME people suffer the effects of structural racism – as well as riskier jobs, BME people experience poorer housing, with higher rates of overcrowding, greater levels of air pollution, and greatly reduced access to green space. This contributes to the prevalence of underlying health conditions amongst those with a Bangladeshi, Pakistani or black Caribbean background.
Black working class players, like Deeney, Kante, Willian, Rose and Sterling, have been forced to be most vocal about their concerns about the restart because they are from the group put most at risk by it. Their friends and families are more likely to have underlying health conditions – and more likely to be key workers – than those of their white teammates. Lets not forget that Sterling’s mother used to work as a cleaner, as did Kante’s mother, as did Willian’s mother. These black players will be disproportionately exposed to tragedy – to quote Sterling ‘this is massive, this is something I’ve never seen. . . I’ve had friends whose grandma’s passed away, I’ve had family members as well that have passed away.’ It’s a dire indictment of football, that, once again, black players are being forced to publicly demand the most basic rights and protections.
Solidarity with all of these players who are putting their heads above the parapets.
- The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd
- The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd… Part 2
There will be different views on all of this, as I discovered when I tweeted about the subject yesterday. Some people believe that the risk to life is minimal (“It’s a nursing home epidemic.”) and are just delighted that football will be returning. Whatever your views, some further resources to keep yourself informed are below.
- John Burn-Murdoch from The Financial Times for data and visuals.
- Kai Kupferschmidt from @sciencemagazine.
- Various other journalists and scientists from Alex’s Twitter List: Best sources: Covid-19.
- The Science Media Centre
Take good care of yourself and your loved ones.