Michael Pavitt

Richard Pound’s comments this week suggesting athletes could secure priority access for vaccines ahead of Tokyo 2020 seemed poorly timed, rather than being a completely outrageous suggestion.

Headlines suggesting priority for athletes come at a time where the coronavirus is surging due to new variants and death rates are reaching record levels in several countries, with the Olympic Games host city Tokyo also entering a new state of emergency.

In Pound’s defence, he is likely to have just offered an honest opinion in response to a journalist’s question and the comment has come at an unfortunate time.

Yet, it was not surprising that the story attracted attention and condemnation from many given the circumstances.

Several athletes from Britain and Canada have responded in recent days by stressing that they would not want to receive the vaccine in advance of people who need it the most. Commendable and understandable.

I cannot help but feel the controversy was something of a storm in a teacup, as there was no suggestion from Pound that athletes should be placed ahead of the elderly, vulnerable and healthcare workers.

This was a point stressed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who has said from early on in this crisis that it supports priority access for high-risk groups and healthcare workers.

Pound’s comments, however, did reflect the view of the IOC that the more athletes that are vaccinated ahead of the Olympics, the better chance the Games have of going ahead.

The suggestion was that should the priority groups receive vaccines over the coming months, would there really be public outcry if athletes were included in the next group.

Richard Pound suggested priority vaccines for athletes could ensure Tokyo 2020 takes place ©Getty Images
Richard Pound suggested priority vaccines for athletes could ensure Tokyo 2020 takes place ©Getty Images

"In Canada where we might have 300 or 400 athletes - to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level - I don't think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that," Pound told Sky News.

"It's a decision for each country to make and there will be people saying they are jumping the queue but I think that is the most realistic way of it going ahead."

From a British perspective, there are nine priority groups outlined in phase one of the Government’s vaccine programme, outlined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The ninth group includes all those 50 years of age and over.

After these priority areas the priority occupations for vaccinations are deemed to be considered issues of Government policy, albeit those considered at increased risk of exposure such as teachers and transport workers are recommended.

Should the British Government’s programme reach this stage in the coming months and the bleak situation the country currently faces clear somewhat, Pound’s suggestion might not be too far-fetched for the UK. And while I am sure there would be complaints from some, I tend to agree with the assessment that there would not be a large-scale outcry.

As my colleague David Owen pointed out last week, the roll-out will vary enormously between rich and poor countries. While the likes of the UK might be in the position to offer vaccinations to athletes with little opposition, other nations may not have that luxury.

It seems inevitable to me that at some stage, numerous industries will be making the case that their need for vaccinations is vital. Sport will almost certainly be one of those sectors.

Burnley manager Sean Dyche has suggested vaccinations of Premier League players was the way forward for football ©Getty Images
Burnley manager Sean Dyche has suggested vaccinations of Premier League players was the way forward for football ©Getty Images

Sean Dyche, the manager of English Premier League side Burnley, offered a glimpse of a potential lobbying effort in the months to come.

Dyche, not dissimilarly to Pound, claimed the vaccination of Premier League football players could potentially be “fast-tracked”. His comments came as the league, which has been able to continue during national lockdowns due to privately funded coronavirus testing, has been impacted by postponements due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

Dyche insisted that he was not suggesting players should be ahead of the vulnerable or key workers.

He argued that money used on coronavirus testing in the league could be used instead within the healthcare system, while making an economic argument that the Premier League contributes a considerable amount to the Government’s coffers through tax.

"What I'm saying is: Is there a timeline where they can fast-track to that period,” he said.

“Logically, it would be better putting the funding that is put into testing into the system to encourage more vaccinations.

"That money could be used more wisely, I would suggest, to get it out there quicker to the vulnerable and beyond."

An opposing view would be that the Premier League clubs could simply choose to contribute funding to a vaccination programme anyway, regardless of whether players and staff are moved up the list at some stage in the future.

Quite clearly, given the reaction Pound and Dyche’s comments have had in recent days, there is a need for sport to tread extremely carefully over the coming months.

This is reflected in some of the comments in response to UAE Team Emirates declaring themselves to be the first professional cycling team to be vaccinated, with 27 riders and 32 staff taking up the optional vaccines at their pre-season training camp.

The vaccinations of the United Arab Emirates backed team followed the country approving the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use in September.

Many will ask whether it is morally right that the Tour de France winner and his team really receive vaccines this early on? Albeit it, the vaccinations are good for those individuals.

Sport, I would suggest, could have a positive role in encouraging waverers in accepting vaccinations over the coming months.

While vaccinations are optional, it seems likely that sports fans may require vaccinations to return to stadiums in the future, with venues potentially asking for proof from spectators.

Sporting organisations could play an important role in assisting public health initiatives to drive the uptake in this regard, something already highlighted by many stadiums becoming vaccination centres.

Perhaps vaccinations of players at a later date would also offer further reassurance, similar to how Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti has supported calls from the National Health Service to encourage the plasma donations from recent sufferers of COVID-19 to secure anti-bodies.