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Matt Hancock offers public defence of Cheltenham Festival taking place

Cheltenham Festival: total crowds of over 250,000 for the week
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Health secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday reiterated the government’s stance that it took “the right measures at the right time” in allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead last month.

The four-day fixture took place from March 10-13 and has since become a lightning rod for criticism around perceived government inaction on the coronavirus crisis, and has been blamed in some parts for contributing to the spread of the virus in Britain and Ireland.

Hancock, whose West Suffolk constituency includes Newmarket, appeared on a phone-in for LBC Radio on Tuesday and was asked by a Cheltenham resident whether the festival should have taken place and if he would commit to a future review of the scientific evidence.

In response, Hancock said: “There will be time for a review of [the science], won’t there? And I have absolutely no doubt the sort of review called for will happen, and quite rightly as we need to learn in case there are future pandemics like this. 

“We followed the scientific advice and were guided by that science. Broadly, I think we took the right measures at the right time. We were ahead of many other countries in Europe in terms of when we took the measures and that’s what you’ve got to do in these circumstances, acting with imperfect information as we are all the way through it and learning.”

Last week Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who is leading plans for any resumption of sport, including racing, in the coming weeks, also defended Cheltenham taking place, while BHA chief executive Nick Rust, among others, has cited numerous other sporting fixtures which took place during the same week.

However, speaking to the BBC last week, Professor Gabriel Scally, a former director of Public Health, said: “I think it’s very tempting to link it to the Cheltenham Festival. Really from a health point of view [it] should have been stopped in advance.”

Matt Hancock: believes the government took the correct approach at the time

Crowds totalling over 250,000 people, roughly five per cent lower than the previous year, attended the four days at Cheltenham. The racecourse had offered advice in the run up to the meeting for those with symptoms of Covid-19, or who had visited infection hotspots such as north Italy in the two weeks prior to the festival, to stay away. 

Additional sanitary stations with alcohol gel and for washing hands were also laid on as part of enhanced hygiene measures, with “mass gatherings”, such as sporting events, not seen as likely to increase the spread of the illness at the time.

Racing followed the actions of sports such as football, cricket, rugby and golf by stopping after government advice around enhanced social distancing, non-essential journeys and mass gatherings changed and became more robust. No action has taken place since March 17. 

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We followed the scientific advice and were guided by that science. Broadly, I think we took the right measures at the right time

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