The majority of Leyton Orient’s first team squad have tested positive for Covid-19, leading to the expectation that their Carabao Cup game at home to Tottenham on Tuesday will be called off, with a decision set for the morning, and serious questions being asked about the biosecurity of League Two.
The testing of players is not mandatory in the English Football League – as it is in the Premier League – with the authorities content to insist on stringent hygiene measures and work-place social distancing. They say that the evidence shows there is a minimal risk of transition of the virus via training and playing outdoors.
Spurs, though, wanted a degree of reassurance before the third-round tie and they paid for Orient’s first-team squad to be tested after the 2-2 draw at home to Mansfield on Saturday. The huge number of positive results – understood to be well into double figures – have shocked the east London club, with Orient announcing on Monday lunchtime that they had closed their stadium and training ground until further notice.
The Guardian understands that Mansfield plan to lodge a formal complaint with the EFL, arguing that Orient players should have been tested before Saturday’s match given their manager, Ross Embleton, revealed there were a “number of people suffering with illnesses” in his pre-match press conference.
At the time Embleton stressed it was “not a Covid issue for any of us to worry about” and after the game he revealed that as many as “nine players” were struggling to play because of a “bug”. Orient’s doctor and head physio conducted regular medical checks and are understood to have felt comfortable the symptoms reported by players were unrelated to Covid-19 until last Friday, when it became apparent a couple of players were suffering from symptoms linked to the virus. As a precaution those players were not involved against Mansfield; they are thought to be among the positive tests.
Orient say they would have paid for tests before the Spurs tie and have since tested all behind-the-scenes staff, including stadium personnel. Mansfield will test players and staff in the next 24 hours and Plymouth, who played Orient last Tuesday, have also made arrangements to undertake precautionary testing, although no players or staff have reported Covid symptoms. It is understood some Orient players played against Plymouth despite not feeling 100%.
EFL clubs did have to test before returning to pre‑season training, at its midway point and before their first competitive games. Players also have to be tested on their return from international duty. The league is adamant compulsory testing was removed not because of prohibitive costs but on the strength of medical evidence after more than 99% of tests following last season’s restart were negative.
Orient said in a statement they had notified Mansfield, Plymouth and Oldham – whom they played the previous Saturday – before they went public with the news of their positive tests. The implications, given the high number of positives, are hugely worrying for the league.
Orient added that the “priority is the health and well-being of players and staff. Those who have tested positive will now strictly follow government self-isolation guidelines.”
What to do with the cup tie against Spurs was discussed throughout Monday with both clubs, the EFL, Public Health England and the director for public health in Waltham Forest, the local authority, all involved.
Spurs are mired in an unforgiving run of fixtures – they are also involved in Europa League qualification – and do not feel there is any room to rearrange against Orient. It could be argued that if Orient cannot stage the tie as intended, they should forfeit and Spurs advance to the next round.
Orient were set to receive a £125,000 facilities fee from Sky, which chose to televise the tie live. The EFL administers the money from the £595m five-year deal it struck with the broadcaster and it is unclear whether it will withhold all or part of the payment to Orient. The governing body is trying to be as supportive as possible to its clubs, who have already been hit hard during the pandemic.