Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh today urged the sporting fraternity to be patient and respect the public health ordinance, amongst growing evidence that football teams are flouting Covid-19 regulations.

The Public Health [2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-ncov)] (No 32) Regulations, 2020 states:

‘During the period specified […] a person shall not, without reasonable justification […] participate in any group contact sports; or participate in any team sports, except with the approval of the minister.

‘[The aforementioned sub-regulations] shall not apply to athletic teams approved by the minister who are in training or participating in contact or team sports, at the national or international level.’

In light of complaints by readers about football academies, in particular, violating the regulations, Wired868 asked Deyalsingh to speak directly to football teams this morning.

“So as far as sport is concerned, the regulations speak to teams involved in national service—like the national football team representing Trinidad and Tobago—[which] are allowed to start back training,” said Deyalsingh, at today’s virtual press conference. “So [athletes preparing for the] Olympics, Red Force, to represent Trinidad and Tobago in cricket, [national] football teams, they can train. What is not allowed is anything else.

“I spoke with the commissioner of police on this last week. So we are urging all of those persons, you are not allowed under the regulations to be training, or congregating, unless you are representing a national team.”

Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith confirmed that lawmen are regularly shutting down scrimmages—informal games—between football enthusiasts.

“The prime minister has been clear that we cannot play contact sport; the only people who can play is national teams,” said Griffith. “We continue to have patrols and we keep dispersing people, but we are not giving tickets to everyone—just like we won’t give everyone a ticket for not having a mask on, because sometimes people misinterpret the legislation.”

Griffith suggested at least two caveats that Deyalsingh did not, though.

First, he pointed out that regular club teams sometimes ‘assist’ the national team by giving them a practice game. For instance, he said, Pro League team AC Port of Spain played the Soca Warriors recently—they lost 8-0.

There is no allowance for AC to train, in preparation for that warm-up match, though.

Second, Griffith appeared to contradict Deyalsingh on whether teams can get together at all. The health minister’s view is that teams are ‘not allowed under the regulations to be training, or congregating’. The police commissioner says he sees no issue with certain types of training.

“A football team can run up the [Lady] Chancellor or do exercise; any team can assemble but they must be less than 10,” said Griffith. “That is no different to exercising in a gym… So they can train but they cannot take part in contact sport.”

And what about doing technical work on the ball within small groups and without contact?

Deyalsingh himself was clear that this is outlawed, and Griffith agreed. Once the football enters the picture, the commissioner suggested that it encouraged the violation of physical distancing guidelines, etc.

“Doing drills with the ball?!” asked Griffith. “Nah, I’m not buying that. Sure, you can get technical and say if we are just kicking the ball from one person to the next then it is not contact sport. But we cannot have police standing around watching to see if it turns into a scrimmage.

“Even if you put two men inside of a circle of five men [in a passing drill] and they are running around, breathing hard trying to get the ball. That is exactly the sort of thing the regulations are trying to avoid.”

Although there were complaints of multiple teams breaching the regulations, Wired868 got photographic evidence of two: QPCC FC, and an academy run by unofficial Men’s National Senior Team assistant coach Keon Trim.

(Trim, who is also a special reserve police officer, was not appointed by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association’s technical committee, but has worked as one of Soca Warriors head coach Terry Fenwick’s guest coaches since June.)

Wired868 asked QPCC FC official Colm De Freitas whether the ‘Parkites’ are training at present.

“We are not training anymore, we are currently not training and we don’t have any teams in training,” said De Freitas. “We shut down some time ago. I can’t remember the exact date; I think it was something around April.”

Trim also denied conducting any sessions outside of the Soca Warriors.

“I train only the national players,” said Trim. “We have the national youth team players training but that’s it.”

In fact, the QPCC children supposedly train regularly at the St Joseph’s Convent ground in St Clair, while Trim was also spotted working with minors at the Nelson Mandela Park in the same region. In both cases, parents are allegedly paying for the sessions—although Wired868 could not confirm the financial arrangement, if one existed.

The public health ordinance states:

‘A person who contravenes this regulation commits an offence and is liable to a fixed penalty fine, […] in addition to such administrative fees as may be determined by the chief justice under section 21A of the Summary Courts Act.

‘And on failure to pay the fixed penalty, may be liable on summary conviction to a fine of TT$5,000 and to a term of imprisonment of three days.’

Wired868 asked De Freitas and Trim if they were sure that their respective organisations are not training.

Trim refused further comment until he was told who was ‘lying on him’. Wired868 did not reveal its source and the interview ended.

De Freitas confirmed that QPCC did have some sessions ‘with all our protocols in place’ but those ended months ago. He could not remember the date.

“We tried non-contact for a little while but we are not doing that anymore either,” said De Freitas. “[…] Maybe we had one kid on a ball, one on one, but nothing contact-related. We sought quite a bit of clarification too to make sure we did the right thing. Football is a team sport but if I am running with a ball by myself is that ‘team sport’?

“We did smaller non-contact sessions in twos and threes and the police visited us and we were fine. But we have since stopped.”

De Freitas admitted that coaching schools were ‘pressured’ to re-open, by children who are anxious to play and coaches who earn a living from the game.

“[…] My opinion is the football fraternity has been very good where this is concerned,” he said. “It wasn’t easy because kids want to play and, for some people, this is a full-time job. But if I have to grade the football fraternity, I think we did a very good job.

“[…] We have seen an increase in 5v5 scrimmages going on at different parks. We are not blind to that. But I don’t know of any teams conducting training. We have already wrapped up for the year.”

Griffith confirmed that a QPCC official—not De Freitas—asked him for advice about holding training sessions last month. He said his answer was ‘no’.

“QPCC talked to us and I told them no they cannot do it,” said Griffith. “[…] I cannot allow it, that is a no no—as unfortunate as it is… The rules are clear.”

For the first week of December, the daily average of new Covid-19 cases stood at 15. If this infection rate holds, or improves, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley is expected to further loosen restrictions in the new year.

However, the Ministry of Health remains concerned about a spike in infections over the Christmas season. As such, citizens—inclusive of football coaches, players, and parents—are urged to be disciplined and civic-minded for just a while longer.

For sport teams who try to operate secretly, Deyalsingh was clear: you are breaking the law.