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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Sport
Jeremy Wilson

Premier League should take heed of strict vaccine stance in NFL

Hindsight is a wonderful tool – but rather less effective than foresight.

And, as English football now looks forward with trepidation to the looming festive period, and the prospect of further Covid-19 postponements, a simple question is being asked.

Is it time to proactively incentivise vaccination in the one sure way that would get the attention of clubs and, by extension, their players? And that is by potentially penalising disruptive outbreaks among unvaccinated players and imposing much tougher Covid-19 protocols on those players who have not taken up the offer of a jab?

It is a step that was proactively taken last summer by the NFL in an uncompromising pre-season memo to all its clubs. The memo began by bluntly stating that, “if a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection”.

By that “burden”, the memo went on to stress that it did not expect its 272-game season to extend beyond 18 weeks and, if a game could not be rescheduled due to an outbreak among unvaccinated players, “that club will forfeit the contest and will be responsible for the lost payment”.

And there was more.

The new protocols also allowed the NFL Commissioner to impose additional, unspecified, sanctions, “particularly if the Covid outbreak is reasonably determined to be the result of a failure by club personnel to follow applicable protocols”.

There was also a long list of more stringent measures that those unvaccinated players must follow, such as being subject to daily Covid tests, wearing masks and not being able to use sauna or steam rooms inside team facilities, no gathering in groups larger than three players and, on away games, “no visiting or mingling with individuals outside of the travelling party”.

The NFL did stop short of mandating jabs but there can be little doubt that these rules had contributed to a full vaccination rate which, as of last month, stood at 94.3pc of NFL players.

Of the 32 teams, 30 also recorded vaccination rates above 95pc. The stated goal of the league is 100pc vaccination.

We are currently on week 14 out of 18 in the NFL and, whether all this is a coincidence or not, the simple fact is that not a single game has thus far been postponed.

The NFL’s chief medical officer Allen Sills also said earlier in the season that “the data has consistently shown higher rates of infection in unvaccinated players than vaccinated players”.

The Premier League and English Football League have been rather less forthcoming with their vaccination rates. The EFL rate is believed to be hovering at something close to 75pc cent of players.

The Premier League has not published data since October 19, which showed that 68pc of players had had a second jab and 81pc had only one jab.

It is understood that the rate of double-jabbed players has now climbed above 80pc but the knock-on, of course, is that many players are simply not yet eligible for their crucial boosters, which cannot be administered less than three months after the second jab.

Looking back now to the end of the season, there is frustration within the Premier League at how a collective window of opportunity may have passed when a club like Wolverhampton Wanderers showed what was possible and arranged for its players to get vaccinated before they disappeared for the summer.

Wolves now have a 100pc rate of double vaccination and are working through their boosters. Brentford, Liverpool and Leeds are understood also to have been proactive about ensuring that the vast majority of players were quickly double-jabbed.

The picture across different clubs, then, has been hugely mixed. And there are of course legitimate counter-arguments.

Mandatory vaccination does not exist in the vast majority of industries and so should footballers who exercise their right not to take a vaccine really be treated so very differently to their colleagues?

And, with all the data so closely guarded, there is no evidence to say that the current surge in cases has been impacted by unvaccinated players. We also know that even two doses of vaccination offers limited defence against an Omicron infection.

That said, it would certainly appear that football clubs could have collectively put themselves in a much stronger position at the end of last season. It is also clear that the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us for months, perhaps even many more years, to come.

There will be further variants. There will be the need for more vaccinations. And football is an industry which, with its extensive travel and basic in-person demands, will remain both at an elevated risk of infectious disease and have a multi-billion-pound revenue stream to protect.

The immediate hope is that emergency short-term mitigations will stem the latest outbreak in time for a typically packed festive schedule. As for the longer-term, football will surely be watching the NFL example carefully and weighing up whether a more proactive stance has become prudent.

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