Cheltenham faces criticism after racegoers suffer Covid-19 symptoms

Greg Wood and Rory Carroll in Dublin
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The Jockey Club, the owner of the Cheltenham Festival, has defended its decision to proceed with last month’s four-day event after Andrew Parker Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, became the latest high-profile attendee to report subsequent symptoms consistent with infection by Covid-19.

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The festival opened on 10 March with at least 60,000 racegoers in attendance each afternoon, while 68,500 were at the track to see the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 13 March – four days before Boris Johnson announced extensive UK-wide lockdown measures.

As well as Parker Bowles, the comedian Lee Mack and footballer Charlie Austin are among racegoers to have subsequently reported symptoms of Covid-19 infection, along with two local men who were working at bars or restaurants at the course during the meeting.

The Guardian has also been contacted by a relative of a 65-year-old man who is currently receiving treatment in intensive care following a positive test for Covid-19. He believes he was infected during a business meeting with a contact who had been to the festival and also subsequently tested positive for the virus.

“I would say that Cheltenham should have erred on the side of caution,” his relative said. “I think they should have made their own decision and not be passing the buck.

Protective medical masks at Cheltenham were a rarity. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“I understand that they were acting in accordance with government advice at the time. However, the government was subsequently criticised as well for not acting quickly enough on this. I think we’re seeing the effects in this lockdown of not acting quickly enough and what could be possible by taking stricter measures such as we are at the moment. That’s potentially going to have an effect on the number of new cases already.”

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The festival’s organisers said the meeting, and several other high-profile sporting events the same week, went ahead following extensive consultation. A spokesperson said: “The festival concluded three weeks ago and went ahead under the clear and ongoing guidance from the government and its science experts throughout, like other popular sports events at Twickenham [and] Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the Uefa Champions League [between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid] at Anfield that same week.

“We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event, including hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers and extra wash basins.”

Sue Smith, the senior racecourse medical officer at Cheltenham, said on Thursday that “it’s simply not possible to know how and where someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 has contracted it”. Smith added: “The standards of hand wash and hygiene at the Festival were of the highest level and all measures were taken in accordance with daily updates from Public Health England.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said on Thursday that Cheltenham’s decision accorded with the measures in place on 10 March.

“It is our absolute priority to protect people’s health, and our advice on coronavirus is the result of direct, continuous consultation with medical experts,” the spokesperson said. “Cheltenham Festival was operating within clear Public Health England guidance at the time.”

The decision to hold Liverpool’s game with Atlético at Anfield has been heavily criticised, particularly because Madrid was by then known to be a centre for the virus in Spain. And Cheltenham’s decision to go ahead – and the decision of 20,000 Irish people to travel over for the festival – triggered widespread anger and disbelief in Ireland last month.

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“If Cheltenham was being held in Ireland I don’t think it would be on, quite frankly,” Simon Coveney, the foreign minister and tánaiste (deputy prime minister), told RTÉ’s flagship news show, Prime Time.

Media commentators and social media users went further and condemned as irresponsible those who at the start of the coronavirus outbreak trooped on to planes, ferries and trains and packed stands and pubs in the Cotswolds before returning home to potentially spread coronavirus.

“Damned if this timeless paradise of horse-iness is going to be thrown off course by some poxy little global pandemic,” said the Irish Times.

However, to date there has been just one case linked to the Festival – a man diagnosed with Covid-19 two weeks after he returned to Ireland. He has not been named and it is unclear where he became infected.