Covid: Premier League refs warn captains of responsibility amid 'hugging' celebrations controversy

Everton's Michael Keane (second right) celebrates scoring during the Premier League match at Molineux Stadium. Credit: PA

Football captains are to be warned “the eyes of the world are on us” in a bid to stamp out goal celebrations amid tighter Covid restrictions.

Referees will specifically remind Premier League players of their responsibilities through pre-match meetings with captains, it is understood.

It comes as the health secretary and one of his top medical advisers appeared at odds as to whether professional footballers should be celebrating by hugging one another.

Players have been told to avoid hugging, handshakes and swapping shirts as Covid rules are tightened in the wake of several outbreaks at clubs and a clutch of postponed matches.

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Ruben Neves celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match. Credit: PA

Speaking on Wednesday, Matt Hancock appeared more lenient on the issue than deputy chief medical advisor for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, who said: "Every close human contact that is avoidable should be avoided."

Earlier in the week, chief executive Richard Masters wrote to all the Premier League clubs, reiterating the importance of adhering to new, stricter coronavirus protocols.

But players still celebrated goals in Tuesday night’s three fixtures - though they may not have had time to be brought up to speed prior to kick off.

Referees are understood to have been told by Premier League bosses to remind players that government support for football to continue is based around compliance with the strict protocols.

Officials have been told to tell captains “the eyes of the world are on us and we need to set an example”.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at Turf Moor, Burnley. Credit: PA

While the public has been told to stick to strict social distancing measures with those living outside of their household - elite players have been seen embracing one another during football games.

Indeed in the run up to Christmas, people were warned: "Don't hug elderly relatives if you want them to survive to be hugged again".

Quizzed on the issue, Matt Hancock said it was important "everybody respects, not just the letter but the spirit of the rules".

10 Downing Street handout photo of Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19) Credit: Downing Street/PA

"It’s important that it [play] is carried out in a way that is respectful of the rules," he told BBC Breakfast.

"Now of course they have special arrangements to ensure that the players are safe and they have a testing regime, but I do think that it’s important that everybody respects, not just the letter but the spirit of the rules because it’s actually the spirit of the rules that’s important, which is don’t pass on the disease, act as if you’ve got it and then you won’t pass it on to others."

But England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam issued a much stronger warning to players, suggesting they should avoid hugging and kissing to celebrate goals.

Asked if was time to issue “no kissing” advice, he told LBC Radio: “I completely agree with you.”

Prof Van-Tam said: “We cannot relax until we have a very substantially vaccinated population. Until then we are in a dangerous place – if you look at the NHS, we are in a dangerous place now.

“Every close human contact that is avoidable should be avoided because one-in-three of us will get the infection and have no symptoms at all.

“So, I’m afraid, yes, on the football point, on the sporting point, I do agree with you.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has called on people who have received the jab to keep following the rules Credit: John Sibley/PA

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston threw his support behind Masters’ warning to Premier League clubs, issuing his own message to clubs on Wednesday morning.

“Everyone in the country has had to change the way they interact with people and ways of working,” the Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire tweeted.

“Footballers are no exception. Covid secure guidelines exist for football.

“Footballers must follow them and football authorities enforce them – strictly.”

The Premier League’s Covid officers have been granted extra powers to check dressing rooms and team buses to ensure compliance with social distancing measures.