THE Cheltenham Festival was a “disaster waiting to happen” and fuelled the deadly spread of coronavirus in the UK, Dr Hilary Jones has warned.
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And now top medic Dr Hilary has has said the decision to go ahead with the race, while other countries like Italy were already in lockdown, could have been lethal.
Other experts are also now calling for an inquiry into the decision to allow the Cheltenham racing festival to go ahead – as figures suggest Covid-19 deaths rose as a result.
Speaking on Good Morning Britain today, Dr Hilary said: “Cheltenham Festival was human soup in the pictures – people were together, so close – there was no social distancing whatsoever.
“People were completely ignoring what was happening in the rest of the world and that was a disaster waiting to happen.
“So many of those people would have become infected right there.”
So many of those people would have become infected right there
Dr Hilary Jones
Dr Hilary issued his warning after GMB presenter Piers Morgan also expressed concerns.
Piers said: “At the time, we thought this was madness.
“On 11 March it was declared a global pandemic and our Government made a deliberate decision to make the Cheltenham Festival go ahead. It could be a deadly mistake.”
There have been reports of people who attended Cheltenham falling ill with coronavirus symptoms, including Andrew Parker Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, comic Lee Mack and the football ace Charlie Austin.
Experts have since demanded an enquiry into the festival after mortality figures compiled by the Health Service Journal at the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust, that covers Cheltenham, recorded 125 deaths of Covid-19.
This is roughly double that in two nearby trusts at Bristol (58 each), and those covering Swindon (67) and Bath (46).
Prof John Ashton, a former director of public health for Cumbria, said the figures “deserve to be properly investigated”.
He told The Guardian: “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”.
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis from the Milner centre for evolution at the University of Bath, also admitted that the mortality figures for Gloucestershire hospitals NHS trust raised questions.
“If you look at the numbers by dates there is a general pickup over time, that is what has been seen nationally, but that appears to be greater for Gloucester than elsewhere in the region,” he said.
“This does coincide with around two weeks after Cheltenham, which puts this in the right time frame for these infections at around the time of the festival.”
Festival organisers have stood by the decision to still let the event go ahead – saying it complied with the government guidance at the time.
A spokesman for Cheltenham Festival and its organisers The Jockey Club previously said: “The festival went ahead under Government guidance to do so, like other sports events at Twickenham, Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the UEFA Champions League, all with full houses that same week.
“We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event including hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers and extra washbasins, which worked well.”
A British Horseracing Authority spokesman also said: “We have taken great care to follow Government guidance. The government itself has been clear about the need to act proportionately and we have been in regular, direct contact with them.
“Some sports went beyond this when they started to see their own players and staff become affected. We were not aware of similar cases in racing at that time.
“The Government advice before and during Cheltenham was that mass gatherings were not a high area of risk, provided hygiene measures were in place and observed.”
Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, defended the decision as recently as Monday morning.
He said: “The risk at mass gatherings 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.”
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At Monday’s daily coronavirus press conference, Angela McLean, the Government’s deputy chief scientific adviser, said there should be an investigation into the consequences of another March sporting event, the Champions League tie at Anfield between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid.
“I think it would be very interesting to see in the future when all the science is done what relationship there is between the viruses that have circulated in Liverpool and the viruses that have circulated in Spain,” she said.
Experts say the lack of community testing and tracing meant it may never be possible to know whether Cheltenham contributed to the spread of Covid-19.