The reality of life without the Covid jab is finally dawning on Premier League footballers.
A custom message from Deputy Chief Physician Jonathan Van-Tam will drop into their inboxes this week urging them to get vaccinated, and club medics are reporting a slow but steady uptick among previously unwilling players.
The prospect of not being able to go to nightclubs next month without a vaccine passport is a powerful incentive for many, while increasingly complex travel arrangements are also pushing them to get the shot.
Premier League footballers are now starting to get their Covid shots if they want to go out
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Since July, players have been wearing colored lanyards or wristbands in team facilities according to vaccine status.
Unvaccinated players must wear masks and be tested every day; vaccinated players are tested weekly. Violations carry heavy fines.
In a Covid outbreak, vaccinated players who test positive after two negative tests can return 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players must remain in isolation for 10 days – they may miss two games.
If a match cannot be played or moved due to a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will lose the match. Neither team is paid.
17 of the 32 teams have been pinned for 95 percent. The Atlanta Falcons and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 100 percent vaccinated.
A group of players traveling internationally last week had to start at an airport at 5am because five of the squad had not been vaccinated and therefore had to undergo a PCR test upon landing in the country where they played.
It meant an earlier flight and waiting time at the destination airport, with the entire team suffering from the five.
Unvaccinated players face peer pressure, with more flights this week for clubs in the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.
“Due to international travel restrictions, it is beginning to dawn on some players how complicated it is to move around without being vaccinated,” said a club doctor.
“That, and the restrictions on their social lives coming in October, means we’re seeing some players who haven’t gotten around to it getting vaccinated now.”
A Boston United season ticket holder, Van-Tam was a major influencer in football circles, meeting with Premier League captains last year to guide them through safety procedures to return to play and to help dispel myths in the summer of 2020.
He also met black and Asian players to better explain the risks of Covid to ethnic minorities and reassure them, which was crucial for a smooth return to the Premier League.
In a video for fans, Van-Tam says: ‘I am a huge football fan. I am absolutely delighted to be on the field again this season watching games. But we have to face the facts, don’t we? Covid hasn’t gone away.’
A custom message from Jonathan Van-Tam urging players to get vaccinated is sent
Granit Xhaka has refused to take his shots and recently tested positive, forcing him to isolate himself
He goes on to explain how fans should try to get to matches a few minutes early to save queues, avoid crowded routes and never attend matches if they have Covid symptoms, even if they have been vaccinated.
Crucially, though, the main message for staying safe for fans is to get vaccinated. “When you go to the competition, remember that the best way to protect yourself and other people is to get two doses of the vaccine,” says Van-Tam. “It really reduces your chance of getting the virus and of being hospitalized or dying.”
That message will be reinforced in the video to players, due out this week, which is designed to influence the sizable minority yet to be pinned.
Newcastle keeper Karl Darlow, who contracted Covid days before he was about to receive his first vaccination, spoke on the BBC last week about how seriously ill he was becoming.
Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow contracted Covid before his shot and became seriously ill
His experience has convinced many teammates to protect themselves, but he added: “We still have four or five guys who have not yet [the jab]. People have their own reasons for health problems, religious reasons and other things.’
Van-Tam’s video is expected to highlight that even if there is a lower risk of dying in young, fit players, the illness can still be serious, as Darlow and Chester co-manager Anthony Johnson, 38, experienced. And that the effects of long-term Covid are unknown.
Darlow said, “Eventually I drove myself to the hospital around 11 or 12 a.m. so I could get hydrated, because I couldn’t swallow with my glands so swollen. I was seriously concerned.
“I knew if I could get in and get an IV and get the food and water in myself, I’d be fine. But there’s always something in the back of your mind that if it gets into your breath, you’re in serious trouble.
Mikel Arteta has talked about the difficulty of convincing players to get their vaccinations
“I think I probably convinced them to make it happen, seeing how I could convince them. Sometimes it’s hard to convince your teammates or have an in-depth conversation about getting vaccinated when they have a very good reason, and you can’t force it on people.’
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, whose start to the season has been disrupted by Covid, has spoken of the difficulty of convincing players after it was revealed that Granit Xhaka had contracted Covid and had not had the vaccine.
“We try to explain all the reasons why we think this is the right thing to do,” Arteta said. “As much as it will protect the club first, the teammates and the environment they are in second. The exposure around when they don’t. In the end it is very personal.’