‘Devastating’: WHO scientist condemns Euro 2020 final over Covid risk

WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, says event likely to have spurred Covid-19 transmission

A WHO scientist has said watching unmasked crowds singing and shouting at the Euro 2020 football final in London on Sunday was “devastating”, and expressed concerns that it would spur Covid-19 transmission, including of the Delta variant.

Covid infections in England have been surging, driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant and the lifting of restrictions, even as vaccination rates remain high. On 19 July, almost all remaining restrictions are set to be lifted, including mask-wearing and social distancing mandates.

In the closing stages of the match against Italy, the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, tweeted: “Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?”

“The #COVID19 pandemic is not taking a break tonight… #SARSCoV2 #DeltaVariant will take advantage of unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing. Devastating.”

In June, the UK struck a deal with Uefa to allow Wembley to open up to 75% of its 90,000 capacity for three July games, including the final, despite pausing the final stage of its proposed reopening due to a resurgence of Covid-19, as part of its “events research programme” (ERP).

The ERP – a pilot scheme designed assess the safety of mass gatherings during the pandemic and the effect on transmission – relies on event attendees to provide a negative rapid test as the condition of entry. However, the Innova lateral flow tests used in the UK are not very reliable at spotting positive cases when the infected person has low levels of the virus (usually in the first few days after being infected), and when administered by non-healthcare staff.

The WHO has issued warnings that tournament crowds would fuel coronavirus cases. “We know that in a context of increasing transmission, large mass gatherings can act as amplifiers,” Katie Smallwood, WHO’s senior emergency officer, said earlier in July.

The European parliament’s committee on public health described the decision to allow 60,000 fans into Wembley as “a recipe for disaster”. Hundreds of cases have already been linked to the tournament, including nearly 1,300 Scotland fans who travelled to London for their team’s fixture against England on 18 June, 300 Finns returning from St Petersburg, and multiple infections in Copenhagen.

Given Covid is primarily an airborne infection the highest risk of transmission is in indoor settings (with limited or no ventilation), although events that include lots of people in close proximity outdoors is also risky.

So, although the crowd shouting and singing outdoors during the match is not ideal, “it’s all the bars, buses, trains, homes where millions are doing this at the same time”, tweeted Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, and a member of Sage.


Natalie Grover Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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