Premier League clubs have decided against a temporary halt to the season, according to reports on Monday, despite a surge in coronavirus cases that has forced mass postponements.
Just four of the weekend’s scheduled 10 games went ahead as Britain battles record numbers of positive Covid cases due to the new Omicron strain.
The Premier League board has been considering applications for postponements on a case-by-case basis but there has been criticism over the decision-making process, with fears it jeopardises the sporting integrity of the competition.
According to the Daily Mail, clubs were told at a meeting on Monday that no postponements would be permitted if 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper from their 25-man squad list were available.
Chelsea, who have fallen six points behind leaders Manchester City at the top of the table, asked to have Sunday’s match at Wolves called off but their plea was rejected despite seven positive Covid cases.
Title-chasing Liverpool also stumbled in a 2-2 draw at Tottenham, with a number of key players absent with coronavirus.
“We were put in a huge risk of health and safety to the players, not just because of Covid but also physically,” Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said on Sunday.
“From a medical point of view, I’m very worried because we have had four consecutive days of positive tests in the squad.
“How will this stop if we carry on and pretend it’s not happening? This is my opinion and it’s the medical opinion but it’s not the opinion of the Premier League, so we have to play.”
– Fixture crunch –
The crisis has come at the busiest time in the English football calendar, with Premier League sides each due to play three rounds of matches between December 26 and January 3.
Even a short circuit-breaker would put strain on the calendar, forcing clubs to cram in fixtures during the second half of the season.
But it appears a proposal to postpone the middle round of the festive fixtures from December 28-30 to give squads stretched by infections and injuries extra preparation time was dismissed at Monday’s meeting.
Rick Parry, chairman of the English Football League, which runs the three divisions below the Premier League, has said there is no “scientific evidence” that a firebreaker would work.
Scrapping FA Cup replays and the planned two-legged semi-final of the League Cup in January have been suggested as solutions to create space in the calendar.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta admitted his side were “lucky” to be in action this weekend as they thumped Leeds 4-1 and repeated his call for more transparency on the decision-making process.
The Gunners were forced to play at Brentford on the opening weekend of the season despite four players testing positive and lost the game 2-0.
“We want to play all under the same rules,” said Arteta. “That’s where I think they have to come forward. Whatever they decide is best for the competition has to be explained.”
Adding to the frustration over the perceived unfairness of call-offs is that some of the clubs with the best vaccination rates have been forced to play on.
Unvaccinated players still have to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into close contact with a positive case, which has further depleted a number of squads.
The Premier League has not released vaccination data since October, when only 68 percent of players were double-vaccinated, while 81 percent had received one dose.
Leeds, who have a 99 percent vaccination rate among players and staff according to chief executive Angus Kinnear, had to give debuts to two teenagers and name a 15-year-old on the bench due to an injury crisis for Saturday’s defeat by Arsenal.