German chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi have raised concerns over holding the final matches of Euro 2020 in the UK in the wake of concerns over the spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus.
The UK government announced on Tuesday that it had agreed a deal with Uefa, European football’s governing body, to keep the final and semi-final of the continent-wide competition at London’s Wembley Stadium as planned.
But the interventions by Merkel and Draghi have threatened to turn the decision into a diplomatic incident, with the two leaders highlighting concerns about the rise of the Delta variant, which was first documented in India.
“Great Britain is a country where a virus variant is prevalent, so everyone who travels to the UK will have to go into quarantine for 14 days upon their return,” said Merkel.
“There are only very few exceptions to this . . . I hope that Uefa will act responsibly in this regard. I don’t think it’s a good thing to have stadiums there filled to capacity.”
A Uefa Champions League match held in Milan in February 2020 between Valencia and Atalanta was widely blamed for contributing to the spread of the virus in Italy at the start of the pandemic.
Asked during a press conference in Berlin if he was in favour of moving the final to Rome, Draghi said: “I will work to make it happen in a country where new coronavirus infections are not on the rise.”
A spokesman for the Italian government said Draghi was more concerned about monitoring the level of infections in the UK, rather than pitching for the event to be moved to the Italian capital.
Rising cases of the Delta variant in the UK prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to extend curbs on mass gatherings in England beyond June 21, the date all coronavirus-related restrictions were due to be lifted.
But choosing a safe, alternative location for the matches would be difficult. The highly transmissible variant is rapidly gaining ground in Italy, Germany and across Europe, which could reverse declining case rates in the coming weeks.
Uefa said last week it had created a “contingency plan” to move the matches over concerns over UK quarantine restrictions for overseas travellers.
Negotiations with the UK government over recent days have led to a compromise. A total of 60,000 spectators will be allowed in the final three matches of the tournament, up from the 22,500 that have been allowed to attend games at Wembley this month.
But people close to the talks said the agreement would limit the numbers of overseas fans, while allowing 2,500 VIP delegates to attend if they stayed in a “bubble” and left the UK within 24 hours of arrival.
The UK government said the plan meant the country’s residents would be “at the front of the queue” for new tickets that have gone on sale.
“The finals promise to be an unforgettable moment in our national recovery from the pandemic,” said Oliver Dowden, the UK’s culture secretary.