Club safety officers fear a lack of consultation over the Premier League’s Project Restart could leave players and officials at risk.
The Football Safety Officers Association, whose members are employed by clubs and, in many cases, would normally be responsible for drafting up-to-date stadium-risk assessments, say they are concerned that clubs seem to be preparing to return to training while many safety officers have either been furloughed or are working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The FSOA fears that inadequate planning could result in tragedy, especially at lower league level, and that safety officers may be held liable despite having been unable to make plans as carefully as they would usually have done.
“The role of the safety officer appears to be lost in the current Project Restart negotiations,” said Peter Houghton, the FSOA’s director of operation. “Our concerns in relation to our members and colleagues are that many clubs are pressing on in the restart direction while safety officers have been furloughed or are working from home. It has not left them in the best place to be assessing the risks involved around their stadium while it is closed down. Clubs should not resume with out-of-date assessments and a safety officer cannot do a risk assessment from memory alone, especially not when faced with something that we have never dealt with before.”
Premier League clubs will meet again this week to attempt to find a way to complete the season, although matches will only be allowed to go ahead with approval from police, the club doctor, and the public body that issues licences for stadium safety (the Sports Ground Safety Association). But the FSOA says that is not enough, as safety officers usually devise tailor-made risk-assessments and contingency plans for in and around stadiums and training grounds.
Such assessments need to be updated to take account of risks associated with the coronavirus, with arrangements needing to be made for disinfection, physical distancing and contingency measures in the event of groups gathering outside grounds.
John Newsham, a FSOA consultant and its former chairman, wrote to nearly 350 safety officers, including those at all league clubs, asking for details about their current working arrangements. Only 33 replied, six from Premier League clubs. “I got a lot of automatic out of office replies,” said Newsham, who has drafted a risk analysis to guide members “A lot of safety officers cannot even access their club emails at the moment. From ones I have spoken to, many say there has not been enough consultation.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible to resume the season but there needs to be a lot more input before leagues decide, ‘OK, let’s go on June 6 or whatever,’” added Newsham. “Even matches behind closed doors at neutral venues need careful consideration. There are big decisions that have to be made and the right safety officers have to be in the right places so they can make sure they’ve got the risk assessment right. That’s not happening as far as we know.”
Houghton said he is particularly concerned about the prospect of lower league teams returning to training and playing. “Many safety officers outside the Premier League and most of the Championship are not full-time. If there is a lawsuit as a result of tragedy befalling a matchday operative or even a footballer, how fair is it for the safety officer to be taken to court and prosecuted as a result of a risk he didn’t think the club should take, but which a competition provider or national governing body has decided is acceptable?”