A surge in footballers testing positive for Covid-19 gives an indication of how fast the virus is silently spreading in the UK, scientists warn.
Six months into the pandemic, top level sports players and club staff are practically the only group being regularly tested for Covid-19, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.
The picture is replicated in Premiership rugby, where four players and one member of staff at three clubs tested positive for the virus this week.
In the past week West Ham, Manchester City, Leighton Orient, Grimsby and Stevenage were among the clubs where cases were confirmed – with some fixtures having to be scrapped.
In the vast majority of cases players showed no symptoms – meaning they could unknowingly pass it to others.
Had they not been footballers, they would not have had access to testing – raising questions about how many Brits may unwittingly be passing it on.
It comes as new restrictions come in place after a worrying rise in infections, which yesterday saw than more than 6,800 new cases confirmed.
In the wider population, even those who are experiencing symptoms are struggling to get tested, despite experts saying testing is the only way to return life to normal.
This week a match between Tottenham and Leighton Orient was cancelled after a “majority” of Orient players – thought to be a number in double figures – tested positive.
Meanwhile West Ham manager David Moyes and players Issa Diop and Josh Cullen learned they had the virus less than two hours before a cup clash with Hull, and left the stadium immediately.
Professor Deenan Pillay, a member of the Independent Sage group – which yesterday warned the UK is in a “dangerous place” – told Mirror Online: “They (professional footballers) are pretty much the only group that are being tested regularly.”
He said that the number of footballers testing positive was “high” and said: “It does show that infection control is really difficult to maintain.”
Prof Pillay said: “Football clubs will be testing everybody regardless of symptoms.
“There’s a gap in society as a whole, as in young people many will show no symptoms.
“We’re catching a small proportion of overall infections.”
And Dr Julian Tang, an associate professor in the Department of Respiratory Sciences at the University of Leicester, told the Mirror Online that the situation in football clubs is a “microcosm” of society as a whole.
He said it is still unclear what proportion of people show no Covid-19 symptoms after being infected – but said it could be as high as 19 in every 20.
Referring to outbreaks in dressing rooms, he said: “If you test 100 footballers and six are asymptomatic, they will probably pass that on to at least six others, who will pass it on to another six, and this chain will continue.”
He believes the number of daily infections could be upwards of 18,000 – nearly double Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s estimate of 10,000.
Dr Tang said: “That’s the main reason why we’re not controlling this epidemic, we’ll never control it if we only test the symptomatic.”
Last week the Premier League confirmed three players and staff had tested positive following 1,574 tests.
This figure does not include the trio at West Ham, who were diagnosed on Tuesday.
Back in July, a similar number of tests yielded no positive cases.
At the moment just Premier League clubs are undergoing compulsory testing – but cases are emerging among English Football League clubs too.
The Leyton Orient outbreak came to light after Tottenham offered to pay for tests ahead of their Carabao Cup clash, which was cancelled.
And League Two club Stevenage Town forked out £3,500 to test every player after one showed minor symptoms.
This revealed that three squad members had Covid-19.
Earlier this month Manchester City duo Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte tested positive for the virus, and this week Ilkay Gundogan became the third squad member to contract Covid-19.