All English professional football was suspended today for at least three weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, with no matches in the Premier League, Championship, League One or Two due to take place until at least April 3.
The country’s top four leagues ratified a postponement in fixtures, including those due to take place this weekend, after Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi both tested positive for the infection.
Three Leicester players are being tested and Everton’s squad in self-isolation after a player reported symptoms of the virus. European football’s governing body UEFA announced this morning that all next week’s Champions League and Europa League ties had been postponed, while England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka was cut short.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said: ‘Above all, we wish Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi speedy recoveries, and everyone else affected by COVID-19.
‘In this unprecedented situation, we are working closely with our clubs, Government, The FA and EFL and can reassure everyone the health and welfare of players, staff and supporters are our priority.’
The Premier League said it aims to reschedule the displaced fixtures ‘when it is safe to do so’, adding: ‘In this fast-moving environment, further updates will be provided when appropriate.’
Last night, Arteta, 37, became the first confirmed member of staff of a Premier League team to contract the disease, which was officially labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on Wednesday.
News of Arteta’s diagnosis came less than an hour after the Premier League announced that this weekend’s fixtures would still be played as planned. He, and the entire first-team squad and coaching staff, will now be self-isolating in accordance with the most recent government guidelines.
Chelsea announced Hudson-Odoi, 19, had tested positive with COVID-19 at around midnight and said the training facility in Cobham, Surrey, will be partially closed.
Hudson-Odoi said in a video posted to Twitter this morning: ‘Hi guys, as you may be aware, I had the virus for the last couple of days, which I’ve recovered from. I’m following the health guidelines and self-isolating myself from everybody for the week. I hope to see everybody soon, and hopefully be back on the pitch very soon. Take care.’
Catherine West MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Sport, commenting on the EFL suspending all games until at least April 4, said: ‘With the spread of the coronavirus, it is regrettably the right decision to suspend the football season. The welfare of fans, players and officials must come first.
‘It is vital that fans are not left out of pocket. Many pay thousands of pounds for season tickets, and clubs must work together to ensure that all fans are properly compensated.’
Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of Cobra emergency committee in which he refused to ban mass gatherings or shut schools despite saying ‘many loved ones’ will die during the escalating crisis. Arsenal were due to play Brighton on Saturday, but the Seagulls said last night that the match is postponed.
It is understood Arteta did not come into contact with Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis, who also tested positive, during their Europa League game on February 27.
There are over 590 confirmed cases of the virus in the UK, and 10 people have died from it so far. Nearly 5,000 people have died worldwide, and the number of cases has shot up to over 130,000.
The prime minister today branded the virus the ‘worst public health crisis in a generation’ and warned that ‘many more’ people are going to die, but still held off drastic measures.
At a press conference in Westminster, Mr Johnson formally declared that the UK’s tactics have shifted from ‘containing’ the killer disease to merely ‘delaying’ its inevitable spread, after he chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee.
Mr Johnson said it was clear the disease will continue to spread around the world and people should brace for the ‘reality’ of ‘severe disruption’ for many months.
The Government’s new plan urges anyone with even mild coronavirus-like symptoms – a persistent cough or a fever – to quarantine themselves at home and to sleep alone if possible and stay at least two metres from relatives.
The PM has also recommended all overseas school trips be cancelled while people over the age of 70 or those with pre-existing serious medical conditions have been told not to go on cruises.
But he stopped short of more extreme measures such as closing schools and banning mass gatherings which have been adopted in Ireland, Norway, France and Italy in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this evening that Scotland was shutting down public events ‘that have the potential to have an impact on our frontline emergency services’.
Mr Johnson said the UK would not close schools yet even though government advisers admitted the move would help stem the outbreak.
Advisers said the length of closure necessary to make the measure work could be more than 16 weeks and would at this stage therefore not be feasible.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance also said today he believed the true number of infections was likely to be 5,000-10,000 already. He estimated that the UK was four weeks behind the trajectory of the crisis in Italy – which has brought the country to its knees.
The peak of the outbreak in the UK might not come for 10 to 14 weeks, the experts said – suggesting it will run into June.
As a result of their manager’s diagnosis, Arsenal’s upcoming fixtures look unlikely to go ahead.
The club is now attempting to track down anyone who has had close contact with Arteta in recent times.
It is not known if Chelsea’s game against Aston Villa on Saturday will go ahead.
A spokesperson for the club said the teenage midfielder became unwell and had the symptoms of a ‘mild cold’ and hoped their staff will be back to work soon.
The statement said: ‘Chelsea men’s team player Callum Hudson-Odoi had a positive test result for Coronavirus returned this evening [Thursday].
‘Chelsea personnel who had recent close contact with the player in the men’s team building will now self-isolate in line with Government health guidelines. These will include initially the full men’s team squad, coaching staff and a number of backroom staff.
‘It is expected that those who did not have close contact with Callum will return to work in the coming days. In the meantime, the men’s team building, one of several separate buildings at our training ground, will remain closed. The rest of our training facility, Stamford Bridge and our other facilities are operating as normal.
‘Callum displayed symptoms similar to a mild cold on Monday morning and has not been at the training ground since then as a precaution. However, his test came in positive this evening and he will undergo a period of self-isolation. Despite testing positive for the virus, Callum is doing well and looking forward to returning to the training ground as soon as it is possible.’
If Arsenal now cannot fulfil their fixtures in the next two weeks because their players are self-isolation, that also puts their FA Cup quarter-final with Sheffield United on March 22 at risk.
Arsenal said in a statement: ‘It is clear we will not be able to play some fixtures on their currently scheduled dates. We will update supporters who have tickets for forthcoming games with more information as soon as possible.’
Arsenal’s under-23 game on Friday against Tottenham, plus their under-18 against Reading and under-16 against Boreham Wood on Saturday will all be postponed, the club said.
One proposal in tomorrow’s Premier League meeting, which will be held as a conference call tomorrow morning, will be to postpone all games until the international break later this month when they could be rescheduled.
It could also see all the remaining Premier League fixtures played behind closed doors.
Arsenal played Olympiacos in the Europa League a couple of weeks ago, and since then the Greek club’s owner Evangelos Marinakis has tested positive for the virus.
Wolves’ match against Olympiacos on Thursday evening was played behind closed doors as a precaution.
Most of Europe’s top leagues have either suspended matches or will play games with no crowd until further notice.
Arsenal have closed down the London Colney training centre after the manager received a postitive COVIC-19 result on Thursday evening.
First team players participated in a training session there on Tuesday afternoon.
A number of people from the Hale End Academy will also be in self-isolation, and the facility has been closed as a precaution as well. Both training centres will undergo a deep clean.
Anyone who has not come into close contact with Arteta is expected to return to work within the next few days.
Arteta said: ‘This is really disappointing but I took the test after feeling poorly. I will be at work as soon as I’m allowed.’
The news came less than an hour after the Premier League announced that this weekend’s fixtures would be going ahead as planned.
However, in the light of this development, the Premier League will now be holding an emergency meeting on Friday morning regarding future fixtures.
A statement said: ‘In light of Arsenal’s announcement tonight confirming that their first-team coach Mikel Arteta has tested positive for COVID-19, the Premier League will convene an emergency club meeting tomorrow morning regarding future fixtures.
‘The Premier League will make no further comment until after that meeting.’
Over the past week, Arsenal have played against Portsmouth in the FA Cup and West Ham in the Premier League.
Handshakes were banned for the Premier League match, however, Arteta still came into physical contact with a number of people during the game.
He fist-bumped Bukayo Saka at full-time, and also embraced assistant manager Albert Stuivenberg, after hugging rival manager David Moyes before the game.
Juventus revealed on Thursday that 121 people, including players, directors, and staff are now in self-isolation after defender Daniele Rugani tested positive for coronavirus.
Sampdoria striker Manolo Gabbiadini has also tested positive, with Italy one of the worst-hit countries.
Three Leicester players are in self-isolation and Chelsea have cancelled a training session in order to deep clean their own facility.
Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy is also in self-isolation after one of his family members tested positive.
Real Madrid’s match against Manchester City in the Champions League has been called off as the entire club has gone into a 15-day quarantine amid the crisis.
On an unprecedented day of cancellations, football league programmes in Spain, Portugal, Holland and the United States were suspended alongside postponements in rugby, tennis, golf, basketball and athletics, while England’s Test series in Sri Lanka that is due to start next week came under threat and more doubts were raised over whether this summer’s European Championship and Olympics will take place as planned.