Football and rugby fans could watch sport at full stadiums next season using a £20 antibody test they obtain from a local pharmacy that will prove they have immunity to Covid.
A consortium of UK companies, which have developed and manufacture the test, are already in talks with football and rugby organisations about using it to help sports grounds to return to full capacity, including large stadiums with 50,000-plus seats, Sportsmail can reveal.
The test can be administered at a pharmacy, takes around 20 minutes, with the results being uploaded to an app on a smartphone or ‘chip and pin’ photocard’, which can be scanned on entry to the ground, alongside a supporters’ ticket or season card.
The retirn of fans to watch football and rugby could depend on the use of vaccine passports
But there is no guarantee that the technology will be used as part of the plan to return fans to stadiums, since there is a growing backlash against the scheme from politicians and pressure groups.
Antibody tests would verify that anyone who has immunity – whether that is as a result of a vaccine or having had Covid – is safe to attend events.
The ‘vaccine passport’ could be used to certify a person is Covid-safe for months, unlike antigen testing, which would have to be carried out prior to attendance at each match.
News of the negotiations comes after it emerged government trials for vaccine passports could begin as soon as next month, with theatres, and stadiums being lined up to pilot the controversial scheme under plans discussed by ministers.
Pilot schemes will begin after work is completed on an updated version of the NHS Covid app that will let users prove they have been vaccinated.
Even stadiums, like Old Trafford, may see capacity crowds next season under plans discussed
Around 14 events have been identified to test various procedures to limit the spread of Covid in crowds. Covid passports are planned for some, which could include the FA Cup final and other sporting events in May, according to the Telegraph.
The government says it is considering a combination approach of ‘covid status certification’, testing and protocols, like mask-wearing, to facilitate the safe return of fans to sport and allow cultural and business events to be held.
However, as the political battle over Covid passports is joined, the private sector is racing ahead. The technology is already available for widespread use and negotiations are underway with sports desperate to bring crowds – and revenues – back.
‘The antibody passport is being discussed with International and major local sports stadiums in various locations in the UK and Internationally covering rugby and football,’ said Irwin Armstrong, chief executive of CIGA Healthcare, based in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said government is looking at different ways to bring fans in
CIGA is part of the UK Rapid Test Consortium, which includes four companies that are developing domestic capacity to provide various tests for Covid. They produce antibody and antigen tests.
‘Most people who have had Covid-19 or have received a vaccine will develop antibodies to protect them against the virus for a period of time. This period is still undetermined but is thought to be up to 6 months or even longer.
‘The test is a simple finger prick which can be carried out in a pharmacy, or other approved location, in about 20 minutes
‘Once the test is carried out it can be read using a patented app which will produce a digital result that can be uploaded into a data base, held in the phone, printed out or transferred to a chip in a card similar to a credit card.
Sports are desperate for fans to return after going a year with almost no spectators
‘This information would include the test result, a photograph and the name of the person concerned. It is essential to have a non-smart phone solution available as 45% of over 65’s do not have a smart phone.’
There is a widespread view that antibody testing – or Covid passports – will be an essential element in the safe return to mass gatherings at events like football and rugby matches.
All UK adults over the age of 18 are due to receive a first dose of the vaccine by the end of July. Second doses are expected to continue to roll out into the autumn.
The Premier League and EFL have expressed their support, as revealed by Sportsmail on Thursday.
However, ministers are already fighting a rear-guard action against opposition to vaccine passports before the idea has even got off the ground.
Scores of MPs and as well as the members of the hospitality industry have spoken out against them, concerned that they will discriminate against people who cannot have the vaccine.
How vaccination passports could work
What would I get?
Officials are working on an update of the NHS app which would allow people to scan their vaccine status at the door of a venue. A paper version is being developed for those who do not use a smartphone.
Is it popular?
One poll found 68 per cent would support the idea for theatres or indoor concerts, with just 18 per cent opposed. But businesses have raised concerns, with the trade body UK Hospitality branding it ‘unworkable’.
Do MPs back it?
Opposition is building, with a cross-party alliance of 72 MPs last night pledging to oppose the ‘divisive and discriminatory’ plan. Rebels include 40 Tories – enough to wipe out the Government’s majority. Labour has yet to say how it will vote and ministers believe they could force it through without primary legislation.
What about pubs?
Boris Johnson suggested last week that it could be left to individual landlords to decide whether to require vaccine certificates.
Possibly in the workplace. But the CBI warns it could prove a ‘legal minefield’ and damage relations.
When will it happen?
Possibly as soon as next month in theatres and stadiums. However a full rollout will not take place until all adults have been jabbed.
The government is keen to stress testing is also a route back to watching live events.
‘This is not about a vaccine passport, this is about looking at ways of proving that you are Covid secure, whether you have had a test or had the vaccine,’ said Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, today.
‘Clearly, no decisions have been made on that, because we have to weigh up different factors, the ethical considerations and so on, but it may be a way of ensuring we can get more people back doing the things they love.’
Antigen testing – which checks if a person actually has Covid – is already widely used in the UK, including twice-a-week lateral flow tests among school children with people are asked to test themselves and upload the result to a government website.
Some public health officials fear unsupervised testing could be too risky if the result of a positive test was to miss a big match, and there would be major logistical challenges supervising tests for some events.
‘The concern about big football matches if there is only a small time slot to get people in and the testing takes half an hour,’ said public health expert, Professor Keith Neal, from the University of Nottingham.
And there is a risk that if people were allowed to log their own results they may lie.
‘It has to be done by someone else,’ said Neal. ‘Too many people may have a motive not to [record the result accurately].’
However, the government could explore antigen testing at pharmacies, with results also uploaded to the app.
A combination of vaccine, testing and prevention of spread is vital, according to Dr Joe Fitchett, medical director of Mologic, which specialised in diagnostic technologies.
‘Why wouldn’t you give yourself an added layer of confidence,’ said Fitchett, whose company has developed a 10-minute lateral flow test for Covid, believed to be the most rapid in the UK.
‘Why would you not do both [antigen and antibody testing]. Some people who have previously had Covid can still get Covid. How would you justify not doing an antigen test?
‘You are allowed to do an antigen test on the morning of a flight and there is a scenario where you could do that on the morning of a match, especially if the ground is set up to be safer than they are at the moment.’
However, the opposition to Covid passports has gathered pace in the last 24 hours.
Boris Johnson faces the biggest challenge to his premiership to date if he tries to ram through controversial plans for vaccine passports that have incensed MPs of all parties
The Prime Minister is on a collision course with 72 backbenchers who have signed a pledge railing against the ‘divisive and discriminatory’ certification scheme.
Forty-one Tory MPs – enough to wipe out the Government’s majority – have joined forces with 22 Labour MPs and 10 Lib Dems to oppose the measures on grounds it infringes civil liberties.
It means any future Commons vote likely hinges on Sir Keir Starmer, who this week said vaccine passports went against the ‘British instinct’ but refused to commit to whipping his MPs either way.
Downing Street insists no plans for domestic vaccine passports have been confirmed, but ministers have been seen to be pitch-rolling for their use in recent weeks and the scheme is reportedly a ‘done deal’.
The Covid-19 vaccination pilot scheme will begin after work on an updated NHS Covid app is completed, that will show a person’s coronavirus vaccination status. Pictured: A person holds up a smart phone with a mock-up of a vaccine passport