Guidance from the‘Return to Sporting Activity in Post Covid-19 Recovery Phase Expert Group’


1. Context

The sporting community has generally welcomed a degree of sports competition following lifting of specific restrictions related to Covid-19. To date the response to the Covid-19 situation from many parts of the sporting community has been positive and it is important that this continues. Sport has the opportunity to continue to present examples of responsible practice and exemplary behaviours aligned to the current Health Regulations and in support of the NI Executive.

In recent weeks the Expert Group established to provide guidance on a ‘Return to Sport’ has been made aware of a growing number of sports events planned for the period ahead. These are being staged by a number of organisers ranging from Governing Bodies to individual clubs. Some organisers have been seeking approval from the expert group to stage their event. It is important to stress that the Expert group does not function to approve events. Its specific role is to offer guidance based on the best sports science and sports medicine advice available at the time. It can provide feedback regarding risk assessments and especially protocols that have been presented by organisers. The feedback is provided so that organisers can make responsible decisions regarding the safe running of the event.

There are a growing number of support resources for sports available on Sport NI’s ‘Return to Sport’ website which is available here. This site will continue to be updated as regulations change and new support resources are developed. In addition the Expert Group have identified a number of important considerations for all those groups planning a sports event. These are presented below.

2. Important Considerations

2.1 Responsible Decision-making

The organisers should consider (a) the Health Regulations in place and (b) local conditions regarding Covid-19 management as indicated by Public Health Authority data. Staging an event requires considerable forward planning and it is important that the organisers continue to monitor these two aspects on an on-going basis right up to the time of the event. There is a risk that in certain circumstances the event may have to be scaled back, pushed back or even cancelled. The key question that organisers must consider at any time will be:

Is staging this event a responsible act for the community?

2.2 Completion of a Risk Assessment

The organisers must complete a comprehensive risk assessment that considers the event from a range of different perspectives. In addition to resources on the Return to Sport website, the World Health organization has produced a risk assessment and mitigation checklist for mass gatherings in the context of COVID-19. It is available here. Control of participants and also spectators (if permitted) will be key. Recent observations from practice identifies that control of spectators in certain types of venues can be a major challenge especially if there is a social component associated with the spectator experience. All risks related to the periods before, during and after the event need to be assessed with appropriate management and mitigation strategies identified in order to set conditions so that the event can operate within the Health Regulations in place at that time. Events considering incorporating a spectator social experience should consult with Environmental Health to ensure the adequacy of arrangements for food and beverage provision as public health standards must be met.

2.3 Development of Robust protocols

The identified management and mitigation strategies must then be used to create a protocol for the event that makes required behaviours explicit and that assigns responsibility for operational elements to an appropriately sized and trained team of personnel. Clear individual roles and responsibilities to deliver on the protocols is key.

2.4 Ensure that Public Liability Insurance is in place

Risk assessments and protocol development are two forms of evidence that the organisers are taking their responsibility seriously. Another is ensuring that an appropriate level of public liability insurance is in place. Consultation with your insurance provider is recommended to ensure that adequate cover is in place. In the current climate this will usually depend on insurers being satisfied that risk assessments, protocols and implementation plans are robust.

2.5 Governing Body sign off is recommended best practice

It is recommended best practice that Governing Bodies should sign off on the event protocols to be used. Local event organisers will have invested considerable time during the preparation phase. There will also be economic drivers that come into play at different stages of the process. It is often difficult to assess competing factors especially when one may be known (economic) while the other (risk of Covid-19 infection spread) may be more challenging to specify. Governing Body scrutiny provides the opportunity for healthy check and challenge and is of particular value when the event is being staged by a club. If a Local Authority led Events Safety Advisory Group exists within your locality the proposals should be submitted for review and/or (in the absence of this) be discussed with the blue light services.

2.6 Recognition that implementation is the greatest challenge

It is possible to develop robust protocols but the real challenge is delivery of these in practice. This depends on a number of factors including:

Clear communication of and education on, the behaviours expected by all attending;

Sufficient diligent personnel and processes being in place during the event, including plans for how to intervene if inappropriate behavior is identified;

Participants should be encouraged to download and use the Stop COVID NI app in order to assist with contact track and tracing.

Each member of the community engaged in the event being prepared to play their part as responsible citizens

2.7 Acceptance of responsibility and liability regarding the event

We would all like to see well-designed and managed sports events play their part in the journey towards a new form of normality. However it is also important that all understand the impact and implications should a local outbreak be tracked and traced back to a sports event. Liability for that will sit with the organisers and therefore they must understand and be prepared to accept this level of risk when making decisions.