Employment Update: Sporting Bodies Gearing Up to Get Back in the Game
As COVID-19 restrictions are set to ease in the coming months, we examine the key considerations for sporting bodies seeking to ensure a safe return to work.

Roadmap for Reopening

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic saw sporting activities grind to a halt overnight. Major global sporting events were cancelled or postponed, such as the Tokyo Olympics, the Champions League, Wimbledon and the Tour de France (see our previous article here for further details). Many sporting organisations are now facing significant financial challenges due to loss of ticket sales, and broadcasting and matchday revenue. 

The gradual return to sporting activities, while welcomed by most, raises new challenges for employers in the sports sector.  As professional sporting bodies prepare for a gradual return to activity, we explore the challenges they face as they manage a safe return to work for employees. 

On 1 May 2020, the government published the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business (Roadmap). The Roadmap will see the economy, society and world of sport reopen in a phased manner, subject to the continued success of preventative measures slowing the spread of COVID-19: 

  • Phase 1: currently set to commence on 18 May, phase 1 will see the return of sports such as athletics, golf, tennis and equestrian sport as well as the opening of public sport amenities where social distancing can be maintained;
  • Phase 2: due to commence on 8 June, phase 2 allows outdoor group exercise involving team sports, training in small groups (but not matches) where social distancing can be maintained and where there is no contact;
  • Phase 3: currently set to begin from 29 June, phase 3 will see the return of sporting events "behind closed doors" where arrangements are in place to enable participants maintain social distancing;
  • Phase 4: currently set to begin from 20 July, phase 4 could see a return of team leagues, such as soccer and GAA, subject to continued social distancing; and
  • Phase 5: due to start on 10 August, phase 5 could see the return of close physical contact sports and the reintroduction of both indoor and outdoor events and mass gatherings.  Such events will be subject to strict limits on numbers and will be subject to the ability to comply with social distancing requirements.

The National Return to Work Safely Protocol 

Following the publication of the Roadmap, the National Return to Work Safely Protocol (Protocol) was published. The Protocol sets out mandatory guidelines that employers must follow to ensure the safety of their staff and to minimise the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Sporting organisations are not exempt and are expected to comply with the provisions of the Protocol.

Sporting organisations will need to examine the Protocol and establish their strategy for a safe return to work.  The Protocol outlines several steps to ensure the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace is minimised. These include: 

  • A requirement for employees and players to complete a return to work form confirming that they are not suffering from any symptoms or have not been required to self-isolate;
  • The provision of adequate hygiene facilities; and
  • Hygiene and awareness training for staff.

Employers must also ensure that physical distancing can be maintained, or, in circumstances where a 2-metre distance cannot be maintained, ensure alternative protective measures are in place.

Sporting organisations will need to implement a COVID-19 response plan, have a plan to deal with suspected COVID-19 cases in the organisation, and introduce workplace and policy changes. Sporting organisations should be mindful that the Protocol is a "living" document and is subject to change. For further details on the steps outlined in the Protocol for a safe return to work, please see our article here.

Implementing a Return to Work Strategy

Any organisation considering recommencing sporting activities will need to carefully plan and prepare before making any concrete decisions. Government and public health guidance should always be followed, and the health and welfare of players, staff and spectators alike should remain the primary consideration. 

Both World Rugby and Athletics Ireland have recently published guidelines which are good examples of the type of strategy required to protect all involved in sporting activities.  

World Rugby's guide, 'Safe Return to Rugby – in the Context of COVID-19 Pandemic', contains comprehensive advice and recommendations for a gradual return to training and matches. Examples of the guidance includes a staggered reintroduction of training, avoiding mixing groups who undertake close contact drills and, should a player develop infection, isolation and testing for all who participated in training or matches with such individual. 

Athletics Ireland has announced a limited return to activity, subject to the adherence to the strict guidelines they published recently. Examples of the guidelines include the appointment of a Safety Officer responsible for managing COVID-19 issues, adherence physical distancing measures and the continued closure of clubhouses and changing facilities.

What's Next?

Although a return to full sporting activities and events is off the cards for the foreseeable future, now is the time to begin preparations. If they have not already done so, sporting organisations should begin examining, and where necessary taking advice on, their new obligations under the Protocol and reviewing their existing health and safety policies.

In addition to the COVID-19 safety requirements under the Protocol, employers remain under a statutory obligation to provide and maintain safe places of work under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Employers should diligently follow the latest public health advice and implement suitable control measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

A 'Return to Sport Expert Group' has been established by the government to provide guidance to sporting bodies and to prepare for the phased return to sporting activity in Ireland.

 As the situation evolves, William Fry will continue to monitor the latest developments and issue practical guidance. Please check in regularly with our COVID-19 Hub to get the most up to date analysis and practical advice. 

 

Contributed by Therese Chambers, Elaine Egan

 

Key Contacts

Derek Hegarty Partner

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