Sport and retail are closely aligned in many ways, sharing a reliance on fans and customers, and on footfall to drive profits. The COVID-19 pandemic - which seems finally to be easing here in the UK in the face of an aggressive vaccination programme - is challenging these sectors (and many others) in very similar ways. Right now, we are seeing both sports entities and retail businesses focus on how safely to get these fans and consumers back "on site" and spending - whether that is tickets, food and drink or other products or services. There are though signs of a fundamental difference of opinion on a current hot topic: COVID certification. 

Simplifying somewhat (and who doesn't love a sweeping statement?), sport is in favour and retail isn't. 

In a cross-sport letter sent on 8 April, major UK football, cricket, tennis, rugby and motor racing bodies pressed the government carefully to consider the certification option:    

"All of our sports can see the benefit that a COVID certification process offers in getting more fans safely back to their sport as quickly as possible. We know that our stadia can only be fully filled with an assurance process.

This process must ensure that everyone can access stadia and must include arrangements that would verify a negative Covid test or an antibody test or vaccination certification."

Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium and British Association of Independent Retailers oppose the idea, with Helen Dickinson the Chief Executive of the former arguing that, "our members are clear that it would not be appropriate or useful in a retail setting". For smaller retailers, in particular, there are practical concerns as to how any such COVID "passport" would be checked and whether they would need to engage extra staff to do so. 

Other challenges with certification are myriad: 

  • Ensuring the system is fair and non-discriminatory, and does not impinge excessively on civil liberties. 
  • Logistical and technical challenges with building, testing and rolling out the necessary technology, at speed. (The difficulties experienced with "track and trace" set an unhappy precedent.)
  • Policing misuse. The system would almost certainly be app based but, for example, how would you stop people borrowing other's mobiles without imposing impractical additional ID checks? (There is great tech to help achieve this - it is just not easy.) 
  • Privacy and data protection issues.
  • Cost. Does the government alone pay for the system?
  • Phasing out. What is the exit strategy to ensure that these restrictions on our liberty are only temporary?  

The benefits of having a system for large venues, like sports stadia, are clear. In order to become profitable again sports venues need fans, and need them in sufficient numbers to justify opening. Conversely, for smaller retail venues, along with pubs and restaurants, the cons may start to outweigh the pros; they need the footfall but not the administrative challenges that certification would bring.  

The evidence gathering phase of the government's own COVID-Status Certification Review closed on 29 March and the outcome is eagerly, and anxiously, awaited. There is little doubt that a certification system of sorts can help get the country back on its feet faster. Can one be found that addresses the numerous significant challenges and yet is subtle enough to cater for all venues, great and small?        

Picture credit: Nick Potts, Reuters. The Guardian.