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20th May 2020

Return to Training of Athletes Following the Partial Release of Lockdown

On 13 May 2020, the UK government confirmed that elite athletes will now be able to return to group training sessions despite the risks posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Training sessions are permitted provided appropriate social distancing and safety measures are put in place in accordance with government guidance.

An elite athlete is defined as:

  • An individual who derives a living from competing in a sport;
  • A senior representative nominated by a relevant sporting body;
  • A member of the senior training squad for a relevant sporting body, or;
  • Aged 16 or above and on an elite development pathway.
COVID-19 Risk Assessments

Before elite athletes and support staff can return to training, a COVID-19 risk assessment officer and medical officer must be appointed. Not only must the sporting venue and all training equipment be deep cleaned first, but the training ground must be set out to allow for social distancing to take place. Athletes and staff must also be screened for coronavirus before each training session, which should include a questionnaire to ascertain if the individual or anyone in their household is suffering from COVID-19 symptoms as a minimum.

These measures must then be explained to the athletes and staff on an individual basis and they will have to actively opt-in before returning to training. A record of this consent should be kept so that it is clear the individual understands and is comfortable with the risks. However, anyone who lives with someone deemed critically vulnerable should not return to training.

Legal Implications of Returning to Training

There will undoubtedly be elite athletes (as well as coaches and other staff) with personal concerns about returning to training safely who may refuse to do so in apparent breach of their contracts. However, the guidance states that they cannot be forced to return and must be able to opt-out at any time without unreasonable steps being taken against them as a result. Legal advice should therefore be obtained before taking disciplinary steps, or suspending payments, as a result of such refusal.

Irrespective of whether or not there is an employment relationship, the sport owes a duty of care to provide a safe working environment and may be found to be negligent (and, possibly, liable for damages) if coronavirus is contracted. Although the guidance states that it is for individual sports to agree with their athletes the conditions for their return, any attempt to agree a waiver of liability for COVID-19-related injury or death is unlikely to be effective, by virtue of s. 2(1) Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. Sports bodies should therefore consider their legal position, in the light of the risk assessment, before resuming training.

Next Stage

The second stage for elite athletes will involve a return to contact training in small social clusters provided this can be done safely and the timing of this will inevitably vary for different sports.

Other Athletes

Although non-elite athletes (for want of a better description) cannot yet return to socially distanced training in the same way as elite athletes, they are now allowed to exercise more than once a day and use outdoors sports courts and facilities such as basketball and tennis courts, athletics tracks, golf courses, bowling greens, and open waterways. Gyms, playgrounds, and swimming pools must remain closed. This exercise can either be done alone, with members of their household, or with one other person from a different household provided they keep two metres apart at all times.

It is up to those who own the outdoor courts and facilities to decide when it is safe to open and they should carry out a similar risk assessment to the one described above for elite training venues. The venue’s website should set out how they propose to maintain social distancing and keep the facilities and equipment clean in order to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and keep its users safe. It may also be sensible to have a booking system in place to avoid groups gathering at the same time and to open more entrances and exits to avoid congestion. Users should be encouraged to bring their own equipment but, if this is not possible, shared equipment should be cleaned thoroughly between use. Cleaning measures should also be implemented to ensure that touch points, such as handrails and gates, are disinfected regularly.

The new exercise rules mean that two athletes from different households can partake in training together provided they do not break social distancing rules. Furthermore, one-on-one personal training and coaching is now permitted outdoors at a social distance; a useful way of allowing non-elite athletes to receive individual coaching until group training is allowed. As the trainer or coach is allowed to meet with multiple athletes in a day, provided they do so at different times, the individual training needs of all team members can be met. Clearly, however, coaches and athletes must adhere to the government’s stringent hygiene guidelines, wash their hands before and after each session, and clean equipment thoroughly between uses using disinfectant spray.

It is advisable for the operators of venues, as well as the organisers of a physical activity, to ensure that clear guidance is given (including the display of appropriate signs) encouraging social distancing, hand washing before and after exercise, and the use of hand gel throughout the exercise session, particularly if equipment is being shared.

There is an obvious risk of claim, in the current circumstances, if COVID-19 is contracted through the negligence of an organiser or venue. The terms of insurance policies should be checked, and specific legal advice obtained where necessary, to mitigate this risk.

If you have any questions about the legal implications of returning to training for elite or other athletes, please contact Ben Moorhead by  email or Edward Wheen by  email .
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