As the country drifts into a second week of a full national lockdown, football marches on.
We now have three vaccines which have been given governmental approval in the UK, but there are massive logistical problems which now swing into plain sight.
The government is considering a rush-job. Governments across the world are considering the same one. To give the first vaccine booster to everyone they can, and get around to the second one at some unspecified time later.
The impulse is easy to understand.
The risks are obvious though to even the greenest student of virology or medicine; this thing could mutate as a result of this plan, or we could find that by the second dose the first has lost its effectiveness … this is a gamble, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
But it’s seen as a necessary gamble.
Were it not for the suggestion that we vaccinate in this way, I’d put our chances of fans being allowed back into Celtic Park for the beginning of next season at virtually zero.
The original vaccination timetable didn’t come close to giving us the kind of coverage, nationally, that would have allowed us to re-open stadia and concert halls and all the other things we’ve been missing from our lives for the past 12 months.
We’re a very long way from “normal”.
Let’s talk sensibly, and honestly, about this for a minute.
The clubs aren’t going to talk about this stuff and the governing bodies sure as Hell won’t. But let’s, us, talk about it in a way that allows us to be straight about what the chances are.
Football will reconvene for the 2021-22 campaign in August.
It seems like an eternity away.
By then, much of the country should have had its first vaccine dose.
But it’s worth sounding a note of caution here about what that means.
Without the administration of the second dose, we’ll be in a period where monitoring the infection rates and hospitalisations is still ongoing, because it’s clear that only half-dosing will not have the full effect of protecting people entirely.
At the very least, we’ll be living with a certain amount of social distancing. At worst, we could find that any lifting of restrictions has to be reversed in preparation for the winter months. Even after the second vaccinations are introduced, we’re facing a period where the national picture will be carefully scrutinised for mutations and for the vaccine wearing off.
Is it possible, then, that football as we used to know it will be back with us?
That stadiums will be re-opened?
Even if you think that we could double vaccinate most of the country in eight months – a logistical nightmare of epic proportions – we’d still be in a monitoring period where it would make no sense to take big risks. The chances of us doing it on time … let’s just say it’ll be tight.
Matt Hancock said today that the UK has no intention of pursuing a “zero strategy”, which means that the second the vulnerable groups are vaccinated the government intends to start letting people get back on with their daily business; this is insanity, of course, and virtually guarantees that we’re headed for another massive upsurge in cases and a fresh crisis.
Why do I say that?
Well, there are two types of vaccines; those which negate viral symptoms and thus prevent severe disease, and those which stop the virus from gaining a foothold in your body in the first place; this is called sterilising immunity.
None of the vaccines currently in production offer sterilising immunity; in all cases, you can still catch this thing and you can probably still spread it. But it won’t cause serious infection, the sort that will land you in a hospital. The annual flu jab works the same way.
So even if you’ve been vaccinated, you can still carry this thing around and give it to other people. That means outbreaks are certain to continue happening even, theoretically, once we’ve all had the vaccine.
There are a lot of unanswered questions.
It might well be that Scotland takes a different approach from the UK and we don’t go for an early lifting of restrictions. It would be hard to argue for that strategy, and with Scottish Parliament elections coming up this year it might not be politically tenable either.
Whatever happens, we’re not nearly going to be out of the woods by the time next season starts and nobody should be telling football fans or anyone else otherwise.
I very much doubt that we’re going to be able to lift restrictions on the size of crowds in September, October, November or December either. The winter of 2021-22 might look a lot like this one.
Fans want to return to grounds.
Clubs definitely want fans to return to grounds. Our own efforts to sell season tickets might be hampered as it is, by virtue of our disastrous season so far and the Year Zero nature of the next campaign. If it doesn’t look as if fans are to be allowed into grounds, that’s going to impact on the sales figures all the more.
So there will be a big push on the part of football … and governments and scientific advisors to those governments will push back. I suspect we’ll end up erring on the side of caution, which means limited crowds if we’re very lucky and another year of watching it on the telly if we’re not … and we’ve not been terribly lucky so far in this thing.