Cheltenham defends decision to race despite virus fears

London (AFP) –


Cheltenham Festival organisers have defended their decision to go ahead with the event after fears were raised that the mass gathering helped spread coronavirus around Britain.

More than 250,000 racegoers attended the four-day National Hunt event last month even though other large sporting events were cancelled shortly afterwards.

A number of people reported on social media that they attended the festival, only to go on and develop symptoms of COVID-19.

However, organisers said they had complied with the government guidance at the time.

A spokesman for Cheltenham Racecourse said: "The festival concluded three weeks ago and went ahead under the government's ongoing guidance throughout, like other popular sports events at Twickenham, Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the UEFA Champions League at Anfield 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."

A government spokesman said on Friday that "Cheltenham Festival was operating within clear Public Health England guidance at the time".

At the time of Cheltenham, which ran from March 10-13, the government had not put any social distancing measures in place.

The day before it started, the government said there was "no rationale" to postponing events.

Figures on the opening day of the festival showed that six people had died in Britain from the virus, with more than 370 confirmed cases.

The Premier League and other leagues suspended fixtures on March 13 as part of a rapid shutdown of sport across the world.

The following Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres and stop all non-essential travel.