Premier League will use a carrot, not a stick, to persuade more players to get the jab

The fresh drive to persuade the 16 per cent of Premier League vaccine sceptics to get the jab will see new rules in 2022 to incentivise good practice, so that elite football is at least better prepared for when the next variant comes along to disrupt the programme.

With Liverpool versus Leeds, Wolves against Watford and Everton’s trip to Burnley postponed on Sunday and fears further postponements will jeopardise this week’s fixtures and the FA Cup third round, which could ultimately jeopardise the season, the Premier League are looking at rewarding early vaxxers who have completed their course of triple vaccination rather than punishing anti-vaxxers.

Last Monday’s Premier League meeting, at which clubs with good vaccination rates among their players expressed their concern and frustration with those clubs where players are even now still resisting the jab, has mandated the league to look at new rules to encourage the 16 per cent.

The league are understood to be keen to frame any new rules as an incentive to get jabbed rather than a punishment for not having been vaccinated. So, if the rules come into place, it will be the case that extra privileges are given to teams with higher vaccination rates and to players who have been boosted.

The Premier League are hoping to persuade vaccine sceptics in the top flight to get the jab

It could be that the current 15-minute limit on meetings at training grounds is extended, if all the participants are vaccinated with the booster.

Dining times after training may have to be socially distanced if you are not triple jabbed, effectively meaning a separation.

Some clubs have even suggested separate buses for the unvaccinated when it comes to travel. It follows a warning from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, as reported in the Mail on Sunday, that unvaccinated players may find themselves sidelined at clubs.

Klopp has reported a high vaccination rate among his squad. The latest league figures showed that 16 per cent of players have resisted having any vaccine, while 77 per cent have had two jabs. Many of those will have been boosted in the past week, triple vaccination being the strongest defence against the Omicron Covid variant.

Monday’s meeting also saw clubs discuss measures to avoid the ludicrous late postponements of matches, which saw Burnley v Watford and Aston Villa v Burnley called off just two hours before kick-off. Villa only reported a fresh raft of positive PCR Covid tests at 10am on Saturday. While clubs are often in the hands of laboratories’ turnaround times, the league are looking at get speedier results and ensuring that PCR tests are conducted early in the day to ensure they are back by the late afternoon on the day before a game.

That would at least give a reasonable assessment of whether a game is likely to go ahead the evening before a game, which would avoid the farce of late cancellations and allow fans to amends plans.

Jurgen Klopp warned unvaccinated players may find themselves sidelined at clubs

Jurgen Klopp warned unvaccinated players may find themselves sidelined at clubs

Among EFL players, there are 25 per cent who have proved unmoved by all the evidence which points to vaccine uptake being crucial to navigating a way through the pandemic and, by extension, vital to football’s economic health. According to QPR chief executive Lee Hoos, some of those players will never come round.

‘There are some people who unfortunately buy into wild conspiracy theories, and the way that analytics works with Google it constantly reinforces that belief because it sends you to sites that back you up because that’s what you want to read,’ he said. ‘It’s really tough to combat that.

‘I’m very pleased with the percentage of players who are vaccinated at QPR because the vast majority of them are vaccinated.

‘But the same as the country, it’s that minority that an cause a problem whether it’s football or society as a whole. All we can do is keep pushing the message and say, “Please look at the facts, don’t believe all the nonsense. Look at the facts”.

‘We’re lucky because we have a really good club doctor who can persuade people and he has changed a few minds in the squad, which has been very helpful but obviously not everybody.’

QPR have had two games postponed because of a Covid outbreak and Hoos explained how the rules surrounding isolation for the unvaccinated mean teams with vax sceptics are much more likely to have games called off.

Even if you are a close contact of a player who tests positive, if you are fully vaccinated — which means two jabs at present — you aren’t required to isolate if you record a negative lateral flow test. However, the unvaccinated previously had to isolate for 10 days, now reduced to seven, even if they were negative.

Wolves forward Adama Traore gets his Covid booster vaccination last week

Wolves forward Adama Traore gets his Covid booster vaccination last week

Wolves skipper Conor Coady gives the thumbs up as he receives his booster vaccination

Wolves skipper Conor Coady gives the thumbs up as he receives his booster vaccination

Hoos said: ‘Some of the players who changed their mind weren’t considered fully vaccinated as they only had one shot. Once they have the second shot, and after a 14-day period after that, then they’re considered fully vaccinated and won’t in future have to isolate if they’re a close contact.’

Asked whether vaccine sceptics were coming round now that the full scale of the disruption caused by their choice is evident, Hoos said: ‘Some will but some will never change their minds.’

With football staring down the barrel of behind-closed-doors games again, West Ham manager David Moyes expressed his hope that vaccinations among the wider population would keep people safe.

‘My dad comes to games and I’d really hope the people he’s sitting around are all vaccinated,’ he said.

‘In the same breath, I’d like supporters to stay at the games because I don’t want to go to how it was. We honestly don’t want to and I don’t think society does.’

English football’s vaccine issues are an outlier in professional sport. Serie A players are 98 per cent vaccinated, according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The Bundesliga have said 92 per cent of players are vaccinated and The Mail on Sunday understands that 92 per cent are fully vaccinated in La Liga.

In the USA, where there is even more vaccine scepticism among the wider population, 94.6 per cent of NFL players are vaccinated and almost 100 per cent of NFL staff. Thirty of the league’s 32 clubs have a vaccination rate of 95 per cent. The NBA have 97 per cent of players vaccinated and have been unapologetic in punishing vaccine sceptics.

New rules in place from the Premier League for 2022 will look to incentivise good practice

New rules in place from the Premier League for 2022 will look to incentivise good practice

Earlier this month, it was revealed by ESPN that NBA players who are not vaccinated will no longer be allowed to play in Canadian city Toronto. An NBA internal memo revealed that a player who is unvaccinated and chooses to leave the country will now be currently ‘unable to re-enter the United States’.

It has not saved either of those sports from winter postponement chaos but they are clear that vaccines and boosters are the way out of the pandemic.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, told Sports Illustrated that though positive cases were rising due to Omicron, very few of the new cases were recorded among players who had been boosted.

‘Only a very small number of boosted players have been breakthrough cases where they’ve turned positive,’ he said.

‘The focus is on boosters for the 97 per cent of players who have been vaccinated. There’s a waiting period after your second shot, but among those who are eligible to be boosted, we are about 65 per cent, and ideally I’d like to see that number get to 97 per cent as well.’

Football seems ready to muddle through this festive period. But it is clear that if they want to avoid more chaos, the minority of vaccine sceptics will come under growing pressure to conform.

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