Mortality figures prompt calls for inquiry into Cheltenham festival decision
Local health trust has suffered twice the coronavirus deaths of neighbouring regions
Public health experts are demanding an investigation into whether the decision to allow the Cheltenham racing festival to go ahead in March led to a rise in coronavirus cases.
According to data compiled by the Health Service Journal, Gloucestershire hospitals NHS trust, which covers Cheltenham, has recorded 125 deaths, around double that in two nearby trusts at Bristol (58 each), and those covering Swindon (67) and Bath (46).
Professor John Ashton, a former director of public health for Cumbria, said the figures should be “properly investigated”.
He added: “We know the festival went ahead and a lot of people will have attended and worked there. It’s important we learn about what the potential is for coronavirus transmission at public events”.
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However, senior officials at Gloucestershire council said there were “many factors” that could have impacted the various death totals. They argued that comparisons between trusts in the west of England were “not possible”.
The Cheltenham festival, which took place between 10 and 13 March, was attended, organisers say, by 125,000 people often in packed stands. There was already awareness of the gravity of the coronavirus when the event was given the green light by the government.
The Times says “more than 60,000 fans a day were packed into the stands, bars, toilets and queues for the food vans at the world-famous festival with little protection apart from some hand sanitiser stations dotted around the racetrack”.
The Guardian says there have been “anecdotal reports” of people who attended Cheltenham falling ill with coronavirus symptoms, including Andrew Parker Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, comedian Lee Mack and footballer Charlie Austin. David Hodgkiss, the Lancashire county cricket club chairman, died of the disease in early April.
A number of other people who had attended the festival wrote on social media in the following week that they were getting symptoms.
However, ministers have continued to defend the decision to let the festival go ahead. On Monday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.”