Why race-day restrictions must stay, for now

13 Aug 20

The BHA’s Chief Medical Advisor Dr Jerry Hill on the importance of adhering to the restrictions currently in place on British racecourses

Two months in, racing has done an excellent job at returning safely. It was the first major sport to resume, secured permission for the return of owners in a separate zone with hospitality available and is at the forefront of government plans for the return of spectators, despite the temporary delay.

The BHA and industry leaders thank participants and owners for accepting the restrictions which are required to comply with government guidelines on sport and keep people safe. We know it gets harder to stomach the restrictions as other parts of the economy open up, but the importance of these measures is as great now as it was in June. Local lockdowns are increasing and government advisers have warned that opening up schools may require restrictions to be restored in other areas.   

The core of racing’s resumption plan is the ‘green zone’ used by participants and including the weighing room and parade ring. It is open to essential personnel who have been medically screened in advance, subjected to temperature checks on arrival and required to take a range of infection control precautions, including wearing face coverings.

Social distancing cannot be guaranteed in the green zone, even though ours is an outdoor, non-contact sport. Controlling a racehorse sometimes leads people to come into close proximity, which is why jockeys, staff and stall handlers, in particular, are asked to wear face coverings. What’s more, there can be hundreds of people in this zone, from different yards and different parts of the country, which provides an added reason to have these layers of protection in place.

By putting in place these controls, racing was able to agree with public health authorities that it would not have to carry out the intrusive, frequent and expensive process of laboratory-testing hundreds of participants every few days as is happening in some other sports.   

The green zone approach allows racing to comply with the UK government’s ‘Stage Three’ guidance for sport behind closed doors. Given the continued risk of accidental breaches, there is no indication that the government will relax the Stage Three guidance imminently.

At the same time, other sectors of the economy have seen a loosening, with the opening of pubs and restaurants and a general relaxation of controls on social distancing.

This can be a confusing picture which has led some to wonder why racing isn’t able to go further in loosening controls. Specifically, some ask why owners can’t be admitted to the green zone or why participants – trainers and jockeys in particular – can’t move freely between the green zone and the owners’ area. Here are the key reasons why this cannot happen for now:

Firstly, the increase in cases witnessed since restrictions were loosened elsewhere in the economy – such as pubs and restaurants – highlights the value to racing of the measures we have adopted if we are to avoid being part of future lockdowns.  

If the integrity of the green zone controls is not maintained, there is a risk of infection being carried into the area where participants are present, leading to the transmission of the virus and a positive test for one or more individuals present.

If that happens, it is possible that ALL those who were present in the green zone at that meeting will be asked to go into quarantine by the NHS’s Test & Trace service. That would mean jockeys, racing staff and trainers not being able to attend meetings for the next 14 days. We would engage with the relevant health authorities and make a case for the most appropriate response, but the signals from the public health authorities are that Test & Trace will be applied in a very robust fashion because of the concern about a ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus.

Secondly, if people have been passing between the two zones, it is highly likely that quarantine would be applied to those who were in both zones, the owners’ area and the green zone for participants, in the event of a positive case in EITHER zone. In other words, if an owner tested positive after a meeting where the separation between zones had not been maintained, the public health authorities would likely take the view that there was a risk that participants in the green zone may have been infected as well and may require some or all of them to go into quarantine.

Thirdly, the work that racing is doing with the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments to reintroduce paying spectators, as well as finding ways to improve the access of owners to their horses and trainers, depends on maintaining the confidence of public health authorities in our controls. If racing is seen to be applying these loosely, the risk is that governments will be less willing to allow us to make changes and bring our sport back in the way we know it should be enjoyed.

Finally, and it sounds perverse to leave this until last, if the controls aren’t properly applied, that’s a risk to peoples’ health and safety. We don’t want someone to get sick because they’ve been to a race meeting. We don’t need to spell out the potential consequences of that.

So please, keep up the good work, and remember the three key steps to help keep you and others safe:

  1. Follow all the social distancing requirements when you attend racing, whether you’re in the ‘green zone’ for participants or the owners’ area
  2. Do not cross from one zone to another
  3. Please let the BHA’s Medical Team know if there’s a positive case

The way that those within the sport have acted since resumption, in general, has won racing admirers in government and elsewhere. It’s helped us put in place a fixture programme for the rest of the year that’s pretty close to normal, albeit without spectators to start with, and few other sports are in a position to do that. If we can maintain this professional approach, we’ll be in the best possible place to keep racing progressing to a better experience for owners and fans of the sport.