Aside from a couple of trial events and a handful of fixtures before Christmas, racing has been staged behind closed doors since its return last June following the first national lockdown.
Owners were permitted to return in limited numbers in July and throughout the summer, but the third lockdown imposed on January 4 meant on-course attendance was again limited to essential personnel only.
The Prime Minister laid out his roadmap for the easing of coronavirus restrictions in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, with a limited return of crowds put into step three of a phased recovery plan, with a date of no earlier than May 17.
Indoor events will be capped at 50 per cent capacity or 1,000, whichever is lower, and for outdoor events this will be 50 per cent capacity or 4,000, whichever is lower, with special provision for large, outdoor, seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed, allowing up to 10,000 people or 25 per cent of total seated capacity, whichever is lower.
Pilots will also run to examine how such events can take place without the need for social distancing, using other mitigations such as testing, the Government said and the BHA has indicated it will seek discussions regarding possible test events.
A statement read: “On behalf of British racing and all those who work in our industry, we very much welcome the government’s announcement today of a roadmap for the removal of the current Covid restrictions.
“The whole sport has worked hard to abide by our race-day protocols to allow racing to continue behind closed doors and support the many livelihoods that depend on our industry. British racing’s classification as an elite sport made this possible. But we do miss owners and we do miss spectators whose presence at meetings contributes so much to the thrill of our sport.
“We have already introduced additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission of the virus and have further options under consideration. We will now engage with government to highlight our ability to move beyond the current limitation on essential staff only as soon as that is possible and allow the return of owners.
“Racing continues to benefit from the incredible loyalty shown by owners. We will clarify as soon as possible when they can return to race-meetings, and when amateurs can resume riding.
“The government has also published details today on the potential timings for the return of spectators to elite sport. We have further discussions with officials scheduled which will enable us to draw up specific proposals for race meetings, including potential pilot events.
“We also expect to hear further details of the plans for Scotland and Wales which are not covered by today’s announcement.”
Non-essential retail will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest, meaning betting shops will remain closed for both the Cheltenham Festival and the Randox Grand National meeting at Aintree – two of the biggest betting events of the year.
The BHA statement added: “Whilst the publication of dates is a very positive sign, the absence of spectators from our big events is continuing to put a strain on racing’s revenues. This has been exacerbated by the closure of betting shops. Our financial discussions with government are ongoing.”
The Government’s plan sets out the lifting of restrictions in four steps. At each one, the success of the vaccine rollout, vaccine efficacy, the presence of variants and infection rates will be measured before deciding whether to take the next step.
The Prime Minister announced there will be a minimum five-week gap between each step – and easing of restrictions will happen on a nationwide, rather than a regional, basis.
Pilot events for the return of spectators are expected to begin as part of the Government’s Event Research Programme from April.
These will use “enhanced testing approaches and other measures to run events with larger crowd sizes and reduced social distancing to evaluate the outcomes”.
Findings from pilots across the sport and cultural sectors will be brought together to develop a “consistent approach” to removing capacity limits as part of step four – which would start no earlier than June 21.
That date would fall two days after the end of Royal Ascot, but a limited attendance at Epsom for the Derby meeting, which begins on June 4, could be a possibility along with spectators at Goodwood’s May festival and the Temple Stakes fixture at Haydock on May 22.
The Racecourse Association were satisfied with the news and is eager for racegoers to be “amongst the first sports fans to safely return”.
A statement read: “The RCA welcomes the announcement made by the Prime Minister outlining the route map out of national lockdown and a timeline for the safe return of spectators to major outdoor events.
“We will continue to work closely with our member racecourses, Government and relevant health and safety authorities to ensure that racegoers are amongst the first sports fans to safely return and enjoy a day’s racing.”