Reopening dates for UK courses and shops set out as BHA seeks return of owners

Racecourses and bookmakers in England were given a clear set of dates to work towards for reopening on Monday after prime minister Boris Johnson gave the first details of a 60-page document laying out the steps to leaving lockdown.

Non-essential retail, which has for most of the pandemic included betting shops, will form part of phase two of the plan, with April 12 pencilled in as the provisional date if the data surrounding the effectiveness of the vaccination programme continues to be positive. 

Johnson's plan places each step at five-week intervals to allow proper time to analyse the data and then a week's notice for businesses to prepare to resume trading.

On the most optimistic timetable, should the first two phases pass without a significant spike in hospitalisations, the return of spectators to sports grounds including racecourses will be possible from May 17, with up to 4,000 in attendance, or 50 per cent of capacity.

That raises the possibility of a limited attendance at Epsom for the Derby meeting, which begins on June 4, while Goodwood's two-day May festival and the Temple Stakes fixture at Haydock on May 22 are early dates in the calendar where spectators could be on course.

Larger events feature in the final wave of measures due to be introduced on June 21 – two days after the end of Royal Ascot – with earlier test events likely to guide government and organisers as to the use of on-site testing.  

Greg Knight, owner of the independent Jenningsbet chain, believes that there is cause for optimism with the government's announcement despite the loss of Cheltenham and Aintree to retail bookmakers.

"I would have liked to have got to March 29 but I can absolutely see the sense in being a little bit more patient for a greater long term reward," said Jennings, whose portfolio of more than 100 shops is centred on London and the south-east. "We can look forward to a really good summer.

"We have traded one full week since the end of October and if you'd said to me last summer, 'You'll have to do an even longer lockdown next year', I think I'd have had my head in my hands. December was better than nothing but I wouldn't want to return to that. I'd rather wait an extra two weeks and open all guns blazing."

Reacting to the roadmap, the BHA said it would seek agreement from the government to readmit owners to racecourses at the earliest possible juncture.

A spokesman said: "On behalf of British racing and all those who work in our industry, we very much welcome the government's announcement today of a roadmap for the removal of the current Covid restrictions.

"The whole sport has worked hard to abide by our raceday protocols to allow racing to continue behind closed doors and support the many livelihoods that depend on our industry. British racing's classification as an elite sport made this possible. But we do miss owners and we do miss spectators whose presence at meetings contributes so much to the thrill of our sport.

"We have already introduced additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission of the virus and have further options under consideration. We will now engage with government to highlight our ability to move beyond the current limitation on essential staff only as soon as that is possible and allow the return of owners.

"Racing continues to benefit from the incredible loyalty shown by owners. We will clarify as soon as possible when they can return to race meetings, and when amateurs can resume riding. 

"The government has also published details today on the potential timings for the return of spectators to elite sport. We have further discussions with officials scheduled, which will enable us to draw up specific proposals for race meetings, including potential pilot events. We also expect to hear further details of the plans for Scotland and Wales which are not covered by today's announcement."

The prime minister told the House of Commons: "The turnstiles of our sports stadia will once again rotate, subject in all cases to capacity limits depending on the size of the venue. And we will pilot larger events using enhanced testing with the ambition of further easing of restrictions in the next step."

With all schools in England due to reopen on March 8, the leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer welcomed the government's cautious approach to reopening the economy and placed it in stark contrast to previous abortive efforts.

"I'm glad the prime minister spoke today of caution, of this being irreversible, of assessing the data and following the evidence," said Starmer. "Those are the right guiding principles and I have to say it's a welcome change from some of the language the prime minister has used in the past."

The timetable confirms that betting shops will remain closed for the Cheltenham Festival, while an April 12 start date would fall two days after the Randox Grand National, denying a major sources of revenue for both the gambling industry and racing, through media rights payments to courses and reduced contribution to the levy. 

The Levy Board has thus far committed to continuing its increased contributions to prize-money until the end of April and will meet this week to consider the position for May and June, although the return of limited crowds is unlikely to make a material difference to racecourse finances. 

Johnson repeated on several occasions during his address to the House of Commons the roadmap would chart a path out of lockdown that was "cautious but irreversible".

The Welsh government announced last Friday that restrictions on non-essential retail would come under consideration over the three weeks leading up to its next coronavirus review, scheduled for March 12. 

Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon will address the Scottish parliament on Tuesday to outline a pathway forward that she described on Monday as sharing "broad similarities" to the Westminster plan for England. 

Nursery-aged children returned to class in Scotland on Monday and Sturgeon will list "an indicative order of priorities" in terms of measures being eased when she speaks to the Holyrood chamber.