Calls for investigation into government decision to allow Cheltenham Festival to go ahead

The 2020 Cheltenham Festival went ahead despite coronavirus fears. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA.

The 2020 Cheltenham Festival went ahead despite coronavirus fears. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA. - Credit: PA

Health experts are calling for an investigation in the government's decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead - after fears it may have led to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden did not see reason to cancel the sporting event, despite the fact that countries including Italy were going into full lockdown in the same week.

The event - attended by approximately 60,000 people - led to a number of people shortly after claiming that they had contracted the COVID-19 disease after attending.

They include comedian Lee Mack, footballer Charlie Austin, and Andrew Parker-Bowles, ex-husband of Camilla.

Mortality figures from the Health Service Journal also reveal that Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust, which covers the local area, has seen 125 deaths - almost double the amount of trusts in Bristol and Swindon.

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Professor John Ashton, a former director of public health, called for the figures to be properly investigated.

He said: 'We know the festival went ahead and a lot of people will have attended and worked there. It's important we learn about what the potential is for coronavirus transmission at public events.'

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Paul Hodgkinson, the council's Liberal Democrat group leader, said: 'Questions are quite rightly being asked around whether Cheltenham races should have been allowed to go ahead just as the WHO was declaring a pandemic.

'Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing, however encouraging crowds of over a quarter of a million racegoers to congregate while other countries like Italy were struggling to contain the virus now looks to be an extremely poor decision by government ministers who advised the Jockey Club to proceed.

'Gloucestershire, and particularly Cheltenham, is now seen as a hotspot for the virus in the South West – the county's Covid-19 cases make up 20 per cent of the whole region's total. The South West, including a big city like Bristol, has low numbers of confirmed cases so it's legitimate to ask why Gloucestershire is so much higher.

'Future investigations may well conclude that events such as this were at least partly responsible for a significant proportion of the UK's transmission, and the devastating consequences that we've seen as a nation.'

Minister Dowden insisted that he had been 'guided by the science' over his decision to allow it go ahead.

'The risk was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.'

Sarah Scott, Gloucestershire's director of public health, said: 'There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in an area, including population density, age and health profile and the position of an area on the pandemic curve.'

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