Cheltenham Festival ‘spread coronavirus across country’

Nero was supposed to have fiddled while Rome burned. In our case it looks like the “Great and the Good” went to the races instead. The Cheltenham Festival took place when Italy was already in lockdown,

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent

There are fears the mass gathering of more than 250,000 people during the Cheltenham Festival last month helped spread the disease widely across the country as famous faces and members of the public who attended have tested positive.

The comedian Lee Mack spent two days at the pinnacle of the jump racing season before testing positive for Covid-19, with a friend saying he believed he caught it off his driver when travelling to the event.

Andrew Parker Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, has also caught the coronavirus and said he thinks he “probably got it on the Wednesday or Friday I attended Cheltenham”.

During those two days he was photographed in close contact with Camilla, as well as Princess Anne, her daughter Zara Tindall and son-in-law Mike Tindall.

Mr Mack and Brigadier Parker Bowles join a growing list of famous names and members of the public who are thought to have caught the virus at the event held from March 10-13.

More than 60,000 fans a day were packed into the stands, bars, toilets and queues for the food vans at the world-famous festival with little protection apart from some hand sanitiser stations dotted around the racetrack.

The roar of the crowd at Cheltenham can send a tingle up the spine but the shouting, cheering and drunken singing by tens of thousands of punters packed cheek by jowl in the terraces and bars is a perfect environment for transmission of infection by airborne droplets from the mouth and nose.

More than 250,000 people walked in through the gates across the four days – and hundreds of them have claimed online that they have since developed symptoms.

The festival took place when Italy was already in lockdown, as of March 9, and drew criticism for still going ahead.

Anyone who caught the virus would have had it by now, given that the event finished on Mach 13 and the incubation period is 14 days, but there are fears they could have gone on and infected more people, with patients spreading the virus to two others on average.

At the time there was huge debate over whether it should have been cancelled, with Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the health and social care select committee, telling the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think it is surprising and concerning that we’re not doing any of it at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at.

“The issue is not whether you or I might get infected at a football match, it’s who we go on to meet.”

Following the festival a number of people took to social media to say they had attended and were getting symptoms the following week.

One person wrote on Twitter: “I was at Cheltenham for three days last week and I am now showing all the symptoms of coronavirus, please be careful everyone.”

Someone else replied: “Was there as well and showing signs.”

The Jockey Club, organisers of the event, said the festival “went ahead under Government guidance”. It finished three days before mass gatherings were banned.

While most of other events had been called off by individual sporting bodies before waiting for official government guidance, the festival still took place, prompting suggestions that Ministers should have done more to ensure all events were called off when the outbreak was in its infancy.