Sport NI has said it is working with a Stormont minister to secure a small capital funds programme for clubs later this year to help them safely grow as they exit restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The chief executive of the organisation, Antoinette McKeown, was also confident that spectators can make a successful return to sporting fixtures as there was “nothing but positive feedback” from events that have already welcomed back fans.
Ms McKeown was speaking at yesterday’s Stormont communities committee meeting as she provided an update on Covid-19 recovery in the sporting sector.
She outlined that Sport NI’s ‘Build Back Better’ programme, which is aimed at supporting the sporting sector, has received £5m funding from the National Lottery over two years.
Sinn Fein MLA Sinead Ennis said a number of clubs have asked her if any capital grants will be available in the future as they want to improve their facilities due to growing members.
Ms McKeown explained there will be a “potential need” for changes to a whole range of facilities and Sport NI are working with the Department for Communities (DfC) to identify a small capital funds programme that may be made available through the exchequer.
“We are actively working with the DfC because the minister is very keen to open a small capital grant scheme for clubs,” explained Ms McKeown. “We would hope that in this financial year that will be made available and our aim would be for the lottery programme to open in the middle of the next financial year.”
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong asked about Sport NI’s programme to help tackle rural isolation and loneliness and wished to hear of any possible evidence of Covid-19 transmission at sporting events with spectators. “It is with a view to ensuring that we reach out to those most vulnerable in rural communities, particularly during this pandemic, and we do put measures in place to support them,” replied Ms McKeown.
Tying in rural isolation and loneliness to the ban on spectators attending sporting fixtures during lockdown, Ms McKeown said many people lost a “critical element” of their lives as it may be the only opportunity they have to see friends and other people within their communities.
“In the small number of events that have actually had larger crowds, we have had really positive feedback in that everything was managed incredibly well,” she stated. “There were no issues.
“There was testing before going [to the fixtures] and socially distant measures were complied with because I think people are so keen to get back that they want to do everything right.
“We have also been providing our partners in sports grounds safety advice, webinars and guidance workshops on how to return our spectators safely. We have had really positive feedback from those events.”