LONDON (AFP, REUTERS) - Concerns are growing over whether English football's top flight can complete the season on schedule after Aston Villa became the fourth Premier League club to suffer a coronavirus outbreak on Thursday (Jan 7).
The Birmingham-based club were forced to cancel training and close their training ground after two rounds of testing returned multiple positive cases of Covid-19 among players and staff.
On Tuesday, a record high of 40 positive tests were detected among Premier League players and staff in the week between Dec 28 and Jan 3. Three Premier League matches were postponed last week due to outbreaks at Fulham and Manchester City.
Britain is battling a highly infectious strain of the virus which has forced a new nationwide lockdown after cases soared to record numbers in recent days.
Despite the latest lockdown that came into force in England on Wednesday and calls from some within the game for a circuit breaker to buy time and bring infection rates down, the British government has insisted that elite sport can continue and the Premier League has so far been adamant that the season will proceed.
"With low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs, the league continues to have confidence in its Covid-19 protocols, fully backed by the government, to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled," the league said on Tuesday.
Fulham midfielder Kevin McDonald became one of the first dissenting voices among players for the season continuing.
"How many more outbreaks and training ground closures before football needs to stop!!!! Shambolic!! Literally treated like guinea pigs!!!" he posted on Instagram.
Due to the late end to last season, the league is less than halfway through the 2020-21 campaign. The packed fixture schedule, with domestic leagues, Cup and European competitions having to be finished before the delayed Euro 2020 starts on June 11, leaves little room for manoeuvre.
Another shutdown would likely result in a severe financial hit for the world's richest league due to rebates in TV rights deals. The late end to last season resulted in a reported £330 million (S$593 million) of rebates to broadcasters.
On Thursday, Arsenal borrowed a short-term £120 million loan from the Bank of England to cope with the impact of the pandemic. The move comes after north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur borrowed £175 million under the same scheme in June.
Players flouting rules
However, a number of embarrassing incidents have come to light in which prominent players have flouted coronavirus restrictions, doing little to aid English football's case to keep going while movements in the rest of the country are highly restricted.
Tottenham trio Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso, West Ham's Manuel Lanzini, Manchester City left-back Benjamin Mendy, Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic were all pictured breaching coronavirus rules over the festive period.
Villa chief executive Christian Purslow has been among those calling for tougher sanctions for players who break the regulations and put the season at risk.
Villa captain Jack Grealish was fined two weeks' wages by the club for a breach of the rules last year.
"There are moments when young people will stray from the rules and, whether you're a parent or the chief executive of a football club, that's a time when you have to be very strict and remind people of their responsibilities," Purslow said earlier this week.