As Harry Kane scored England’s second goal in its historic win over Germany at Wembley Stadium, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised his arms overhead in celebration.
“Harry Kane finally scored!” he said, referring to the England captain’s first goal at Euro 2020.
Wembley is also hosting the pan-European football tournament’s semifinals on July 6 and 7 as well as the final on July 11.
After England’s quarterfinal victory against Ukraine on Saturday, all the talk among English fans is whether football is “coming home,” the chorus to “Three Lions,” the adopted anthem of the team’s supporters. England will play Denmark in Wednesday’s semifinal, while Italy faces Spain on Tuesday.
England hasn’t won a major international competition since 1966, but the national team is still a big draw and more than 26 million people watched the BBC’s coverage of the match against Ukraine game on TV and online.
More than 60,000 fans will be allowed to attend the semifinals and final under the UK government’s roadmap for allowing large crowds at events without social distancing.
Fans will have to follow strict guidelines to attend the games, including having a negative Covid-19 test or proof of full vaccination.
Despite such requirements, the staging of three of the biggest football matches this year has come under intense scrutiny – both at home and abroad – given the UK reported its highest number of new Covid-19 cases since the end of January, with 27,989 on Thursday, according to Public Health England data.
“Weekly cases in England are up 74% on the previous seven days, while the number of people admitted to hospitals in England with Covid-19 has risen by 55% over the last week,” the British Medical Association said in a press release on Saturday.
However, the number of deaths remains low, which the British government attributes to the effectiveness of vaccines against severe illness and hospitalizations. There were 18 deaths in the UK on Saturday compared to 1,245 on January 29.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East rose by 10% last week, World Health Organization Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge told a press briefing in Copenhagen on Thursday.
A 10-week decline in the number of Covid-19 cases in the 53-country region “has come to an end” Kluge said, with rising cases driven by increased socializing, travel, gatherings and easing of restrictions.
Kluge said the situation and was “rapidly evolving” and warned that the Delta variant – first identified in India – is spreading at a fast pace, resulting in increased hospitalizations and deaths.
French member of parliament Pascal Canfin is urging UEFA and UK authorities to reconsider holding the semifinals and the final at Wembley, calling the decision to increase crowd capacity at the stadium “a recipe for disaster” in a letter to the president of the European Parliament.
The letter said the most recent threat assessment from the European Union health agency demonstrated the danger the Delta variant “poses to health and safety and to the easing of restrictions for citizens in the EU.”
It also noted the agency’s analysis showed the Delta variant was 40-60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, first identified in the UK.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi had previously warned about the impact of England’s hosting the championship’s finale.
Draghi voiced his opposition to the Euro 2020 final taking place in London “where contagions are growing rapidly” on June 21.
Events beyond stadia
Despite these concerns, a UEFA spokesperson told CNN on Friday that it had no plans to alter its match schedule.
“The mitigation measures implemented in each of the UEFA Euro 2020 host venues are fully aligned with the regulations set out by the competent local public health authorities.
“The final decisions with regards to the number of fans attending matches and the entry requirements to any of the host countries and host stadiums fall under the responsibility of the competent local authorities, and UEFA strictly follows any such measures.”
During a Thursday news conference, Catherine Smallwood, senior health emergency officer for the World Health Organization, said: “We need to look much beyond just the stadia themselves.
“What we need to look at is around the stadia – how are people getting there? Are they traveling in large, crowded convoys of buses? Are they taking individual measures when they are doing that?
Smallwood went on to ask what would happen after fans left stadiums and went into “crowded bars and pubs to watch the matches,” suggesting when people socialized with others, “there will be cases.”
UEFA’s Euro 2020 medical adviser Dr. Daniel Koch admitted that an increase in Covid-19 cases could be linked to fan gatherings.
“It cannot be totally excluded that events and gatherings could ultimately lead to some local increase in the number of cases, but this would not only apply to football matches, but also to any kind of situations that are now allowed as part of the easing measures decided by the competent local authorities.”
He added that vaccine programs being implemented across Europe “will help ensure that no new big wave will start in Europe and put pressure on the respective health systems, as was the case during the previous infection waves.”
Last week, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare said positive cases in Finland had nearly doubled over the space of a week, “largely due to football fans returning from Russia” after Euro 2020 games.
Finland played its Euro 2020 Group B game against Russia on June 16 in St. Petersburg.
The agency said 947 new cases had been confirmed in the country between June 21 and 27.
Official figures showed Russia recorded 679 new coronavirus deaths on Friday – the highest number of pandemic-related deaths in one day for the fourth day in a row.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are suffering the highest rates of infection, far outstripping the nation as a whole, according to the head of Russia’s health watchdog Anna Popova. The watchdog didn’t mention whether the spike in St. Petersburg was linked to Euro 2020.
In Scotland, nearly 2,000 new cases of the coronavirus have been linked to Euro 2020-related events surrounding the Group D match with England on June 18, according to a report from Public Health Scotland.
The UK government was accused of mishandling the crisis in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and the staging of the Euro 2020 semifinals and final puts Johnson even more under the microscope.
When asked about if public health had been put at risk in the staging of the games, a spokesman for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told CNN: “Public safety is our main priority and there are strict entry requirements in place.”
He noted that fans who failed to present proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test would be denied entry, adding that spot checks would also be conducted by the Football Association.
UEFA’s Euro 2020 stadium rules stipulate that face coverings must be worn upon entry to the stadium and in all indoor areas, but masks can be removed when seated in view of the pitch.
Football could be coming home to England, but there’s evidence to suggest it could also be accompanied by an uptick in Covid-19 cases throughout the UK.