LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - "Football's coming home," is the chant of England fans at this year's Euro 2020 tournament, but with it may come Covid-19.
England face Italy on Sunday in the final at London's Wembley Stadium, which has already hosted two semi-finals over two days this week with crowds of around 60,000 people, two-thirds of its capacity.
And while Wednesday's semi-final victory over Denmark was greeted with jubilation, England is facing a new wave of Covid-19 cases, fuelled by a combination of the highly contagious Delta variant and its emergence from a third lockdown.
Italy has also seen coronavirus cases picking up, and epidemiologists in both countries warn that Euro 2020 might fuel its spread among younger, mainly male, adults.
"It's that demographic - those football-loving, male, predominantly, individuals of a particular age group that we're now seeing a surge in," Denis Kinane, an immunologist and co-founder of testing company Cignpost Diagnostics told Reuters.
"So, just as we unlock socially ... we're actually going to have a spike," Kinane said, adding that the virus could spread to family members.
Imperial College has found a quadrupling of Covid-19 in England in the last month, the findings suggesting that one in 170 people in the country had the virus between June 24 and July 5. Women were 30 per cent less likely to test positive due to differences in social mixing which could, at least in part, be driven by Euro 2020. The latest analysis, done in conjunction with market research company Ipsos Mori, revealed that the prevalence for men was 0.7 per cent but 0.5 per cent for women.
"The degree to which men and women are socialising is likely to be responsible," said Steven Riley, an infectious diseases expert at Imperial College London, commenting on the findings. "Because of the timing, it could be that watching football is resulting in men having more social activity than usual."
Football fans have congregated in stadiums, fan zones and pubs to cheer on England to their first major tournament final in 55 years.
The more contagious Delta variant, first identified in India, has fuelled a surge in infections, with more than 32,000 positive cases recorded in Britain on Wednesday. Nearly 2,000 infections alone were linked to Scotland fans travelling to London to watch their team's match against England last month and cases have reached record highs in Scotland, which has become a global hotspot for Covid rates.
According to Public Health Scotland, the Delta variant has become "seeded" in Glasgow, a Euro 2020 host city.
Germany has queried European football governing body Uefa's move to allow bigger crowds in stadiums as the tournament has gone on, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) has flagged the importance of looking beyond stadiums to pubs and bars where people gather to watch matches.
London's Wembley matches are "pilot events" which allow for larger crowds where fans must test negative for Covid-19 or be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Doctors battling record numbers of Covid-19 deaths in St Petersburg were worried when football fans gathered for the quarter-final between Spain and Switzerland.
Although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has delayed the full reopening of England's economy until July 19, a week after the final, people can still gather in bars and pubs.
Before the semi-final, he had urged fans to support England "enthusiastically, but in a responsible way". For a nation swept up in footballing fervour after 55 years since England's last major final and 16 months of restrictions, politicians are loathe to dampen the celebrations.
Jubilant fans were pictured packing bars, streets and even clambering on top of a London bus in the aftermath of England's extra-time 2-1 victory over Denmark on Wednesday, with fan zones highlighted by some as a particular risk for transmission.
"I think the stadiums are being correctly managed ... (but) the fact that we've got the whole nation now celebrating - and rightly so - it's scary," said Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at Suffolk University, told Reuters.
In Italy, Carlo Signorelli, professor of hygiene and public health at San Raffaele University in Milan, said masks could stop the spread of droplets among singing or chanting fans.
"We've had them for a long time, so putting them on for one more evening won't be the end of the world," he told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.