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Latest message from BAFA Chief Executive Pete Ackerley on the ever devloping COVID-19 pandemic and Return To Play plans!

I know many of you are anxious to get back to football as soon as possible and are keen to understand what’s happening with our Return to Play plans.  

As lockdown easing continues to move at a different pace in each of the home nations, below is an overview of where we are with each country as well as a general update on competition planning across the UK. 

England
We still plan to return to activity from Monday 29 March onwards, and will publish our guidance in full on that day or shortly before.  

I appreciate this is frustrating for those of you wanting to plan in more detail, but this means we can take any last-minute changes to guidance from the UK Government into account. We are also still waiting on additional clarification on car sharing guidance and definitions of local travel. 

I can however confirm that subject to any last-minute unknowns, from Monday 29 March flag teams in England will be able to resume practice at BAFA Stage 4, which allows for the resumption of non-contact practice – as was in place prior to our most recent lockdown. We will be refreshing and reissuing our existing Stage 4 guidelines to update or expand on a number of points.  

I can also confirm that contact teams in England will also be able to return to activity from Monday 29 March at BAFA Stage 5. This is comprised of four steps of gradually increasing contact duration and activity, on top of unlimited non-contact practice time. Contact duration and activity starts with 20 minutes and 1v1 and 2v1 blocking and tackling and will increase to 30 minutes and team-level activity.   

We know that many contact teams across England will be moving at a different pace due to challenges with facilities, differing risk appetites, or how many weekly sessions they can deliver initially.  With this in mind, our Stage 5 guidance will allow coaching staff some flexibility to use their own judgement at the speed at which their teams move through each step.  

Our guidance recommends a two-week period for each step of Stage 5 for contact teams, but as a minimum we expect teams to hold at least two practice sessions at each stage before moving to the next. This will allow teams who may not immediately have access to facilities to ‘catch up’ later on with additional sessions, as well as allowing teams who run more than one session a week to progress to stage 5d a little earlier.  Early completion of Stage 5 does not mean a return to full contact practice, however. This will not be permitted by BAFA until we move to Stage 6 which we hope will be possible from 24 May onwards. 

For both flag and contact teams, all previous measures to protect participants from Covid-19 must be maintained. As a reminder this includes strong hand and equipment hygiene, distancing when not active and record keeping for track and trace purposes. National Leagues teams must also have a named and trained Club Covid-19 officer with their details and certification uploaded to the Go!Membership system along with an up-to-date risk assessment. University contact teams should ensure they work with the Sports or Athletic Union at their institution to meet their own specific return to play and risk assessment requirements.    

The limit of 30 participants per wholly separate group per half pitch also remains in place for flag, and for contact in steps 5a-5c. 

Scotland
We recently shared some limited return to activity guidance for teams in Scotland, allowing those aged 12 years and above to resume socially distanced practice and exercise in groups of 15 participants.  

I am pleased to confirm we now have a clearer indicative timeline from the Scottish Government for further activity to resume, with under 18s able to restart undistanced on-field activity from 5 April onwards, and over 18s from 17 May onwards. We will be working with sportscotland over the coming weeks to get our Stage 5 modified contact guidance approved to make sure contact teams can resume activity promptly at these points. Flag teams will be able to resume undistanced on-field practice activity immediately at BAFA Stage 4 on the appropriate dates for their age groups. 

We will publish Scotland specific guidance for u18s and over 18s once approved by sportscotland. As in England, all previous measures to protect participants from Covid-19 will remain in place, as will the limit of 30 participants per wholly separate group per half pitch. 

Wales
There have also been some early indications for when activity may resume in Wales. Activity for under 18s will be able to resume from Saturday onwards, and we will be publishing guidance in the coming days to support South Wales Warriors who have an associate U16 contact team.  

We also now understand that adult activity should hopefully be able to resume from 22 April onwards, and once updated guidance for grassroots sport in Wales is available, we will create and share appropriate BAFA guidance and a roadmap for Wales. We anticipate this will follow a very similar structure to that outlined above for England and Scotland. 

Competition
I know the next question on everyone’s mind is what does this all mean for competition?  Differing timelines for England, Scotland and Wales mean that organising a true national competition becomes very difficult this year. The later start than usual also provides us with challenges – as we can’t run too late in the year without disrupting the next season of university football. And, having listened to feedback we know some clubs have reservations about participating in a full, national competition this year from both a risk and a financial point of view, as well as having concerns about preparedness.  

However, we are very much committed to being able to provide you with as much meaningful football as possible within these limitations. With this in mind, for this year only we are planning to regionalise competition where practical, while still ensuring teams are as evenly matched as we can. This will mean more local conferences with less travel and less cost.  

I can confirm that for all contact teams there will be no relegation or promotion for this year only.  In addition, no team will be penalised if they cannot compete to the level they would wish to this season. It has been difficult for us all and we do not want to add more pressure to our members for issues over which they have no control. 

For adult contact, In England and Wales there will be a minimum of an eight game regular season, but in Scotland due to a later return to play, this will be reduced to six games.  Playoffs and national finals will also be replaced with regional bowl games. 

We are still waiting on at least 20 adult contact teams responding to acting Adult Contact Commission Lead Warren Smart’s request for input. We are keen to understand every team’s risk appetite for competition this year, and any unique challenges you may have. However, we are also keen to make definitive decisions on conferences.  If you have not done so already, please respond to Warren by Sunday 28 March at 5pm, or I’m afraid we will have to assume you do not want to compete this year. Once conference decisions have been confirmed, they will be communicated directly to teams. 

For women’s adult contact football, the decision has also been taken to reorganise alignments around a regional structure of five groups instead of the previously D1 and D2 structure. Gamedays themselves will continue to follow the standard format of either three or four teams at a single venue. Regions will operate on a league basis with a regional champion. The tournament format allows for a slightly later start to accommodate the participation of teams in Scotland. Details of conferences and timings will be shared with teams when finalised. 

The upcoming season for U19 and U16 contact football will look different to previous years. At U19 both D1 and D2 will be split up into small groups of teams. Each team will be scheduled a 6 game season as before, but over a much shorter time frame. We realise that teams have had recruitment plans greatly disrupted over the last year and appreciate this may make a full 6 game season difficult. We ask teams to be flexible when looking at formats played, and it may be necessary to play 7v7 games in D1 and 5v5 in D2. Our main focus is to get our young players back onto the field, and your flexibility in making this happen is appreciated.  

At U16 we will also have a more regionalised structure, with some of the existing divisions being split into groups of four. This should still give those teams who are capable an opportunity to play four tournaments although, as with U19, in a much shorter timeframe.  Again, we understand this may be difficult for some teams and we urge you to contact U16/U19 Commission Lead Stuart Potts-Perkins if you feel you will not be able to fulfil a full fixture list.    

Instead of National Finals events, we are looking at several different options for U16/U19 ranging from regional championships to representative games. As soon as a decision has been made, teams will be contacted directly. 

For mixed adult flag competition, we intend this to resume at the timescales already communicated by the flag organising committee. For this season there is also an increased regionalisation of conferences. Plans for post-regular season football are still being finalised and will be shared directly with the flag community once confirmed.   

Due to the usual later start of the competition, we anticipate the 2021 women’s flag season running broadly close to its planned timings and format. Again, more detailed information will be shared with the women’s flag community over the coming weeks. 

Our children’s flag formats of U14 and U17 in England will have their usual series of tournaments running over the summer, with a finals event planned for mid-September. A new introduction this year will be local plate tournaments for teams who don’t make the finals, also taking place in September. U11s teams are free to arrange friendlies when possible, and BAFA is also working with external partners to arrange specific event days for this age group. Details will be communicated when things are confirmed. There are currently no league or associate children’s flag teams in Wales. And in Scotland, associate children’s flag teams will be planning friendly competitions organised informally between themselves when possible. 

For all formats we will also be continuing to look at further opportunities later in the year for additional competitions and tournaments and, where possible, extending National Programme activity to give you as much meaningful football as possible.      

Fees and membership
Once our competition structure has been finalised, we will be reviewing our budgets with commission leads and, where there are any considerable reductions in activity, we will be looking to adjust our player membership fees for the year as appropriate and make any necessary partial refunds where needed. 

I would take this moment to remind you all that BAFA membership covers more than just a competition – it includes personal accident and liability insurance for practice as well as play, and the costs of running the infrastructure of our National Governing Body. 

Next steps 
As outlined, we will publish updated guidance for England and for u18s in Wales over the coming days. 

Our commission leads will also be reaching out to team contacts over the coming weeks to confirm or discuss conferences and confirming provisional schedules to allow you to plan for competition.  

I’m sure right now you all have many questions. We intend to include answers to some frequently asked questions as part of our updated guidance for all nations. To help us shape that, please discuss any questions you have within your clubs first and then club representatives can email [email protected] if you have anything you would like us to try and clarify either directly, or as part of our FAQ. 

I would also like to take a moment to remind you that movement through our Return to Play plans and into competition is also still dependent on continuing good progress across the UK in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. While we hope this will not be the case, it’s possible there will be delays, pauses or halts to activity – either nationally, regionally or locally. However, thanks to the hard work of our commission leads and their teams and the many other BAFA volunteers working hard behind the scenes, we will be prepared to pivot and adapt accordingly. 

Thank you for reading through what has been a very long update, with a lot of information to digest. It’s a great feeling to be able to push ahead with planning to get back to the game we all love and I look forward to sharing more information with you in the coming days. 

Pete Ackerley

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