Football’s vaccine crisis: Two thirds of top-flight players are not jabbed… Stars are polluting dressing rooms spouting Covid anti-vaxx theories about Bill Gates, infertility and using VITAMINS!
- Club medics despair with only a third of all Premier League stars double jabbed
- Kick It Out are privately concerned – with race said to be contributory factor
- There is frustration at PFA silence as senior players spread conspiracy theories
- Government ready to introduce compulsory certification at one week’s notice
The full scale of the Premier League’s vaccination problem is laid bare in Sportsmail with almost two-thirds of top-flight players yet to be fully jabbed and many refusing altogether.
Club officials are complaining that dressing rooms have been ‘polluted’ by senior players spreading conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates, infertility and the power of vitamins.
On Thursday night the Premier League received reassurances from the Government that unvaccinated players WILL remain available for selection if Covid passports are made compulsory at mass events.
Most of Newcastle’s players have not been vaccinated despite seeing goalkeeper Karl Darlow lose two stone after being hospitalised
Officials are complaining senior players are spreading conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates
Boris Johnson’s so-called Plan B for getting through winter, which involves mandatory vaccine certification being introduced at all large venues, had led to fears a significant number of players would effectively be banned from stadiums.
The Government’s warning last month that compulsory certification could be introduced at one week’s notice had sparked alarm as the Premier’s League’s vaccination crisis shows no sign of abating.
The League remain concerned as the limited nature of many clubs’ vaccination programmes increases the chances of damaging Covid outbreaks, but they have been reassured after receiving more details of the Government’s winter plan.
The disease has claimed the lives of six Leeds legends including Norman Hunter (L) and Kalvin Phillips’ beloved grandmother Val (R)
Under the proposals, compulsory certification would only apply to visitors to large venues, with members of staff exempt on the proviso they undertake regular testing.
Many fans may object to players being spared compulsory vaccination when they are not, but the Government are wary of the legal implications of making vaccination a condition of employment.
Only seven of the 20 Premier League clubs have fully vaccinated more than 50 per cent of their squads. While Leeds, Wolves, Southampton and Brentford have vaccinated more than 90 per cent of their staff, at least three clubs have yet to get even 10 individuals jabbed.
When even such a socially responsible and thick-skinned individual as Gareth Southgate is moved to express regret at becoming involved in the Covid vaccine debate, football has a problem.
The England manager was shocked by the contents — and volume — of his postbag after he answered a call from NHS England to urge young people to get jabbed earlier in the summer; a development all the more remarkable given he has sadly become accustomed to being abused since missing a penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final shootout.
Southgate’s video was aimed at fans rather than players, although the message does not appear to have been accepted by many in the England squad, among whom vaccination rates are believed to broadly reflect the low levels of take-up in the Premier League.
As Sportsmail revealed this week, only seven of the 20 top-flight clubs have succeeded in fully vaccinating 50 per cent of their squads, while the overall average is said to be around one-third of all players.
The Big Six in particular are understood to be struggling as leading stars refuse to be jabbed, with two of the clubs yet to hit double figures.
Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek tested positive after the Super Cup in August
The Premier League are hopeful the situation will improve in the coming weeks as the eight-week lag between eligibility for second jabs passes, but given the number of players expressing doubts, there are no guarantees.
If Southgate’s reticence to get involved is understandable given the toxic nature of the vaccine debate and the intemperate nature of many fans, then the stubborn refusal of many players to get jabbed is less so.
These are young men who have willingly put their bodies in the hands of doctors since their early teenage years, yet as adults many are now ignoring strong medical advice that could prevent illness and protect their families.
‘It’s very frustrating and hard to know what to do, as the conspiracy theories have really taken hold in some dressing rooms,’ one club doctor told Sportsmail. ‘We’ve got senior players, intelligent men, coming out with all sorts of nonsense and they won’t be budged. One of them told me he didn’t need the vaccine because he could boost his immunity by taking vitamins.
‘Some of the stuff they’re reading — and believing — on the internet is incredible. Players are saying that it will make them infertile, that it’s part of a plot involving Bill Gates, the pandemic is just propaganda. The real problem is that they’re also polluting the minds of younger players.’
The herd mentality of many dressing rooms, and strong influence of a few vocal players who have embraced the anti-vax movement, is a recurring issue across the country, according to one Premier League executive.
Wolves have succeeded in getting all players and backroom staff fully vaccinated
‘The problem is the amount of time players spend on social media and WhatsApp groups, where conspiracy theories and misinformation are flying around all the time,’ he said.
‘One or two big characters in dressing rooms can have a huge influence, and in several cases that has stopped younger team-mates getting vaccinated. It’s hard to break down the dressing-room mentality.’
The Premier League’s slow vaccination rate looks worse when set alongside the relative success of the EFL, whose clubs had managed to get 70 per cent of their players double jabbed by the end of August, and have experienced a further uptake since then, with new figures due to be released later this month.
While hard data is difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence from Premier League clubs suggests that the greater number of foreign players in the top flight may be significant.
HIGH-PROFILE STARS WHO TESTED POSITIVE
Mikel Arteta (Arsenal manager)
Arsenal confirmed their boss had become the first manager to catch the virus last March, which prompted the Premier League to suspend the season.
Jamaal Lascelles & Allan Saint-Maximin (Newcastle United)
Lascelles and Saint-Maximin suffered from long Covid, ruling both players out of action for more than a month.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
The midfielder tested positive shortly after the Blues returned from Belfast after the Super Cup against Villarreal.
Ryan Bertrand (Leicester City)
The left back revealed he was still struggling in training a month after having the virus.
Karl Darlow (Newcastle United)
The goalkeeper spent three days on a hospital drip and was ‘severely worried’ after getting the virus before his first vaccine. Darlow is now urging footballers to have the jab.
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
The Argentina striker, now at Barcelona, was sidelined for several weeks dealing with the effects of Covid last season.
Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
The Swiss midfielder caused controversy after it emerged he had declined the vaccine before contracting Covid.
At last week’s Premier League clubs’ meeting in London, the issue of South American and African players resisting the vaccine due to their suspicion of being told what to do by the Government, particularly those coming from countries where democratic legitimacy is questionable, was raised by a number of executives as a factor in leading to push-back in dressing rooms.
One manager at a Championship club told Sportsmail that differing cultural attitudes among certain ethnic groups appeared to be a contributory factor in explaining his players’ vaccine hesitancy, which would fit with wider trends among the general public.
Kick It Out have heard similar stories from clubs and are privately expressing concerns, but they are waiting to see more data before commenting publicly.
‘This is obviously a very sensitive area, but there do seem to be particular problems among black players, possibly for cultural reasons,’ the manager said. ‘I’ve had several black players tell me that the vaccine affects them differently. And of the five players at our club who are refusing to be vaccinated, four of them are black.’
Beyond the poor headline figures there are impressive success stories at several clubs.
Wolves had succeeded in getting all players and backroom staff who operate within their so-called inner bubble fully vaccinated before the end of last season, with all the jabs administered at a local NHS centre.
The influence of Wolves’ Chinese ownership appears to have been significant in this regard, with executive chairman Jeff Shi providing an early warning of the impending pandemic in early 2020 and ensuring the club have remained ahead of the curve ever since.
Wolves were the first Premier League club to instruct staff to work from home in March 2020, and lobbied UEFA hard to postpone a Europa League match against Olympiacos that month due to concerns about international travel before the shutdown.
Leeds have also been successful, helped by the fact Elland Road has been used as a vaccination centre, but also by the close-knit nature of their squad and the powerful influence of manager Marcelo Bielsa. All of their squad have had one jab, with just two players signed during the summer waiting for their second.
The devastating impact of Covid-19 has been felt particularly keenly at Leeds, who as a club and a community have been hit harder than most by the virus.
Norman Hunter, who contracted Covid in April 2020, was the first of six club legends from the Don Revie era to die in the space of 19 months, while the disease also claimed the life of Kalvin Phillips’ beloved grandmother Val. In such circumstances it is no surprise the players are taking vaccination seriously.
Brentford and Southampton are also bucking the Premier League trend with vaccination rates above 90 per cent, prompting one executive at another club to speculate there is a discrepancy between bigger and smaller clubs caused by player power.
‘A lot of it is down to ego, pure and simple,’ he said. ‘At some of the bigger clubs the players are clearly in charge. Footballers aren’t used to looking after themselves, so if it’s left up to them it won’t happen, and the clubs who weren’t quick to get players vaccinated are really struggling.’
In some cases even first-hand experience of the impact of Covid is not enough to shift opinions, which have become increasingly entrenched.
England manager Gareth Southgate regretted becoming involved in the Covid vaccine debate
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce admitted in August that the majority of his players had not been vaccinated despite seeing goalkeeper Karl Darlow lose two stone after being hospitalised with the virus. Such a baffling scenario has been experienced lower down the divisions, too.
‘We had one player who was very ill with Covid — he lost a huge amount of weight and could barely move for two weeks — but his best mate in the dressing room is refusing to have the vaccine,’ a League Two manager told Sportsmail. ‘It’s extraordinary.’
The Premier League are sufficiently concerned and are contemplating stricter Covid protocols on clubs with low vaccination rates, as Sportsmail revealed this week.
Government plans to limit quarantine exemptions for players travelling to red-list countries to those who are fully vaccinated may also help, although in effect this may end up punishing clubs more than their refusenik players, as their employers could simply bar them from travelling for international duty.
While the Premier League and EFL arranged Zoom briefings for managers and captains with deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam, at which he attempted to dispel the infertility myth in particular, there is a feeling at some clubs that the authorities could do more.
There is frustration in particular at the silence of the PFA who, although represented on both those Zoom calls, have not taken a proactive role in persuading players to be vaccinated.
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam attempted to dispel the infertility myth
‘The PFA need to do more to educate and ultimately protect their members,’ a club source said. ‘They’re hiding behind the freedom of choice argument, but they should be using their influence to allay fears and provide strong guidance.’
In keeping with America’s more tightly-regulated sporting culture, the NFL have taken a tough line on Covid postponements, providing the model of a potential path the Premier League could pursue.
If the NFL are unable to reschedule postponed matches caused by a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak forfeits the match, a deterrent that could be used in this country if clubs are unable to fulfil fixtures.
If nothing else, that threat may at least focus players’ minds, certainly more so than the well-intentioned words of the England manager.
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