Sport-COVID forces players into isolation as calls for vaccination grow


Soccer Football - Premier League - Chelsea v Everton - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - December 16, 2021 Fans get their coronavirus disease (COVID-19) passes checked outside the stadium before the match REUTERS/David Klein

(Reuters) - World sport continued to reel from the surge in COVID-19 cases on Friday with politicians urging sportspeople to set an example by not shunning the vaccine, while international competitions were affected as countries introduced travel curbs.

As Europe's top soccer leagues prepare to wind down for a short winter break, England's Premier League is looking to go full steam ahead over the busy festive period. Nine scheduled matches have been postponed so far due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Only half of the weekend's games will go ahead even as many managers sought clarity on what the threshold for postponing games was and questioned whether the integrity of the competition was at stake with so many players missing.

The Premier League only grants a postponement if a club has fewer than 14 players available, with the board examining requests on a case-by-case basis.

Title contenders Chelsea and Liverpool had key players missing on Thursday while Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola cancelled his news conference on Friday after returning an inconclusive COVID test.

Tottenham Hotspur, who had 13 cases among players and staff, have had three matches in all competitions postponed and manager Antonio Conte warned the workload and fixture congestion for players who have just recovered from COVID could be detrimental.

"You can't give them the same charge of work as other players ... If you want everything very soon, you risk injuries," Conte said as Spurs return to action on Sunday, when they host Liverpool, for the first time since Dec. 5.

VACCINE HESITANCY

While Conte was concerned about his players' welfare, the Italian admitted he could not force them to take the vaccine in a league where only 68% of the players are double vaccinated, according to the most recent data from October.

So far the Premier League and the lower divisions - with 19 English Football League weekend games postponed - have been severely affected with several outbreaks at clubs as Britain reported a new high of 93,045 COVID-19 infections on Friday.

A quarter of the EFL's players said they do not intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine and Britain's sports minister Nigel Huddleston urged them to overcome their reluctance as it was their social responsibility.

"The overwhelming majority of those seriously ill from COVID in hospital are unvaccinated. The most important thing anyone -- including footballers -- can do to protect themselves, co-workers and loved ones is to get vaccinated and get a booster," he said.

The vaccine data in England stands in stark contrast to Italy where 98% of top flight Serie A players have received two doses.

Outbreaks in North American sports nL1N2T21VX leagues have also forced the NFL and NBA to postpone games and update their COVID protocols for the holiday season with individuals required to mask up regardless of their vaccination status.

The NHL, which agreed to a break in its schedule to make way for players to compete at the Winter Olympics in February, postponed nL1N2T21GD its 11th game of the season on Friday.

The NHL has until Jan. 10 to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics without financial penalty and could withdraw if COVID-19 disruptions force games to be rescheduled during the Olympic window.

TRAVEL CURBS

Less than two hours after a Champions Cup rugby game between Ospreys and Racing 92 was cancelled due to a number of positive COVID cases in the Welsh side, European Professional Club Rugby postponed all weekend games between French and UK clubs.

Travel curbs introduced by the French government made it difficult to fulfil fixtures even as the country's sports ministry looked to get exemptions through meetings with the government's crisis unit.

The decision came a day too late for Leinster who were forced to forfeit Friday's Champions Cup game at Montpellier despite saying they had the necessary players to complete the fixture after both clubs reported fresh cases.

A complete shutdown may not be on the agenda yet and Northampton Saints boss Chris Boyd was hoping sport could battle through the Omicron variant wave "for the sanity of the public".

"It is what it is and hopefully... we can keep entertainment going in the bounds of safety around COVID," he said.

(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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