A Liverpool Champions League fixture that is thought to have led to more deaths as a result of the spread of coronavirus in 2020 was classed as “low risk” by officials, the city region’s Mayor has revealed.
On March 11, the World Health Organisation formally declared Covid-19 a pandemic. This was also the same day Liverpool hosted Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
A joint report by the House of Commons health and science committees strongly criticised ministers for not acting faster as Covid-19 spread. Experts said shutting down a week earlier than March 23, 2020, would have cut the 40,000 death toll in the first wave “by at least half.”
On March 11, more than 3,000 fans travelled to Liverpool from Madrid for the away leg of the European tie, despite lockdowns being in place across Spain. In total, around 50,000 people were recorded as attending the match.
These included Mr Rotheram himself, who told the inquiry he had received no consultation about a possible postponement, given high cases in Spain and a rising number in the UK. He added how there had been “no scientific evidence to support our concerns” and there would likely have been a “sigh of relief” had it not gone ahead.
The Metro Mayor said despite the WHO officially classifying Covid-19 as a pandemic that very day, there was no call to postpone the match, which Mr Rotheram said had been classed as “low risk.” Liverpool went on to lose the game and were knocked out of the competition as a result.
Madrid's Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida and Liverpool Council's public health director Matt Ashton were among those who have since said the decision to go ahead with the fixture as normal was a mistake. Mr Rotheram told the inquiry how on the evening of the match, the atmosphere was “subdued” among supporters, who appeared to be subconsciously trying to take safety measures amid the “unbridled joy” of events like celebrating a goal.
The Metro Mayor added how “for nearly every major announcement” he and officials were learning by television, including relaxation of lockdown measures and the widely criticised Eat Out to Help Out scheme. He accused the government of making life difficult on messaging, saying officials would “flip flop” making it hard for the city region to speak with one voice.
This was particularly prevalent in October 2020, Mr Rotheram said, when a deal was being negotiated with the government over the tiering system. The former councillor told the inquiry how he held a call with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ensure messaging was clear about the change in circumstances.
Mr Rotheram said he advised Mr Johnson a “Tory Prime Minister might not be the best person" to communicate this to the Liverpool City Region and a joint communications strategy was needed. The Prime Minister agreed to this, according to Mr Rotheram, and it was decided a call would be held between officials to “nail down” wording.
Mr Johnson went on to unilaterally announce the move to Tier 3 for Liverpool later that day. The call never took place.
The Metro Mayor said he and his team had no notification of this and were left to “pick up the pieces.” This included a flurry of messages on social media, including threats to Mr Rotheram, which led to round the clock police protection.