LONDON, England (Reuters) - The Premier League fixture list was thrown into chaos on Thursday as six games were postponed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, taking the total for the past week to nine.
Leicester City's home game against Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday was the first to go followed by Manchester United's clash with visiting Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.
As the situation escalated the Premier League announced later that four more games this weekend -- Southampton v Brentford, Watford v Crystal Palace, West Ham United v Norwich City and Everton v Leicester City -- had also been postponed.
"The League understands fans will be disappointed these games have had to be postponed and apologises for the inconvenience and disruption caused," a statement said.
"All other fixtures due to be played this weekend are currently scheduled to proceed as planned."
With infection rates from the omicron variant accelerating across the country and the government racing to deliver vaccine booster jabs, the prospect of more games being called off grow.
Earlier in the day, Brentford manager Thomas Frank called for all Premier League games in the coming week to be postponed to allow clubs to recover their depleted squads.
Tottenham, who reported 13 positive tests among players and staff, have already had two league games postponed, as have Manchester United, Watford and Leicester.
United's game at Brentford was called off on Monday and in a statement on Thursday the club said it would "suspend football training operations at the Carrington Training Complex for a short period to help reduce risk of further transmission".
On Wednesday Burnley's home match with Watford was called off shortly before kickoff after the visitors reported cases.
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers on Wednesday criticised the Premier League after an initial request to have Thursday's game against Tottenham postponed was turned down.
Rodgers, who had nine players unavailable, said lucrative TV deals were being prioritised over the health of players.
"I'm pretty sure that's the case," Rodgers told reporters when asked. "In terms of players, managers and coaches, we all want to play the games. Ultimately the health of a player is the priority. If players are available, you get a better product."
The Premier League said the decision to grant a postponement came after Leicester reported more cases and were left with an "insufficient number of players available to fulfil the game."
On Monday the Premier League said it was re-introducing emergency measures after a record 42 COVID-19 infections nL1N2SY19O were recorded in the past week among players and staff.
Players now need to take lateral flow tests every day and two PCR tests per week.
League rules state that if a team cannot raise 14 players then a game can be postponed although other factors, such as impact on preparation and whether or not there has been an "uncontrollable outbreak" are taken into account.
The Premier League's policy is to address postponements on a case-by-case basis.
Explaining the latest four postponements, the league said Brentford and Watford were dealing with ongoing outbreaks and had closed their training grounds, while bottom club Norwich had an insufficient number of players owing to COVID-19, injuries and illness.
'THROUGH THE ROOF'
Brighton, who lost 1-0 at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday, had tried unsuccessfully to have that game postponed because of COVID cases.
Speaking on Thursday, Brentford boss Frank said he was dealing with 13 cases at the London club.
"The COVID cases are going through the roof at all Premier League clubs," he told a news conference.
"Everyone is dealing with it and everyone has a problem at this moment in time. To postpone this round (of Premier League games) and the Carabao (League) Cup would give everyone a week at least to clean and do everything at the training ground so everything is fine and we break the chain at every club."
Two more Premier League games are scheduled for later on Thursday with Liverpool hosting Newcastle United and Chelsea at home to Everton. Liverpool were without three players after suspected positive tests while Chelsea's preparations were hit with four players unavailable.
December and the holiday season is traditionally a packed programme for English football, with many games shown on live TV. But the bumper schedule could be shredded by the wave of infections sweeping through clubs.
The UK reported a record number of new COVID-19 infections for the second day running on Thursday with 88,000 new cases.
With so many games being postponed, the question of players' vaccination status has again been raised.
The Premier League's last released data in mid-October said 81% of players had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose with 68% double vaccinated.
The English Football League released its latest vaccination figures nL4N2T13SS on Thursday, revealing that 25% of players in November said they were not intending to get vaccinated.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman and Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)