A Covid-19 expert says huge events such as Cheltenham Festival and massive weddings likely won’t happen again for a “few years” due to the threat still posed by the virus.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said Britons should expect some changes to large gatherings for some time despite the mass vaccination programme.

Spectators are currently banned from attending sporting events and large weddings cannot take place under existing restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus.

In 2020, the four-day Cheltenham Festival, which ended just over a week before England was plunged into its first lockdown, controversially went ahead despite calls for it to be scrapped as the Covid crisis rapidly worsened.

Large crowds at the Cheltenham Festival on March 13
Cheltenham Festival was blamed for helping to acceleratae the spread of Covid in the UK (Image: Getty)

The mass gathering, of more than 250,000 people over the four days, likely helped “accelerate the spread” of coronavirus across the UK and contribute to an increase in Covid-19 deaths, it has been claimed.

Other large gatherings and sporting events, including Premier League and Champions League football matches with packed stadiums, were still being held at that time.

In recent months, police forces have shut down a number of large weddings that breached lockdown rules, including one attended by about 150 people at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in north London.

Professor Spector said on Sunday that some changes to large gatherings are likely to be in place for “the next few years”.

He told Times Radio: “I can’t see us suddenly having another Cheltenham Festival with no regulations again, I can’t see us having massive weddings with people coming from all over the world, I think for the next few years those days are gone.

“I think we should still continue to do the easy things, keeping our distance from each other in public, masks, handwashing etc, these things don’t cost really anything to do.”

He added: “I think we need to get used to that and that will allow us to do the things we really want to do more easily and more readily.”

Addressing infection rates as seen in his Zoe Covid Symptom Study UK Infection Survey, he said: “We’re moving towards where rates are generally much lower everywhere, we’re seeing about one in 170 people on average affected.”

Asked at what level he would say it is sensible to start easing restrictions, he replied: “I think around one in 250 would be where I start to become more comfortable, but it also depends on the context at the time and things like hospitals and death rates as well, because I don’t think we should be fixated on any one particular parameter, we’ve got to look at the overall picture.”

Professor Spector said he believed reinstating the rule of six allowing people to meet outdoors should be “definitely encouraged” around the same time as primary schools begin to return.

Schools in England are expected to reopen from March 8 with a staggered return of pupils.

Under the Government’s three-phase plan for easing the third national lockdown, pubs and restaurants could be allowed to reopen in April, though there will still be some restrictions, it is reported.

It is said that punters will be encouraged to drink outside.

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Asked about whether private gardens were safer than outdoor pubs or restaurants, he said: “My personal view, and I’m not speaking for anyone here, is actually sometimes a beer garden is more controlled than people’s homes and gardens.

“Generally most establishments are well behaved and I think they clean the tables and people keep their distance and I see no reason why we couldn’t move towards that in places that are well set up for it.”

As the UK emerged from the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April last year, Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said Cheltenham Festival could have helped to “accelerate the spread” of coronavirus.

In May last year, Professor Spector said Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid, attended by about 52,000 people at Anfield, contributed to an increase in coronavirus deaths in the UK.

He said the events had “caused increased suffering and death that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred”.

Data from his Zoe app showed that Cheltenham and the North West both became “key hotspots” for the virus, he added.

By then several European countries and cities had already imposed lock downs.

Mass gatherings were banned just over a week later when the first lockdown was imposed.

The Government and the racing industry have said they followed the advice available at the time.

Cheltenham insisted it was not possible to know how or where people had contracted the virus.

-mirror

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