I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the committee. I am the acting assistant secretary for tourism and sport in the Department and with me are my colleagues: Peter Hogan, head of sports policy; and Noel Sheahan, head of sports capital.
This year contained much promise for Irish sport. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games were drawing near. The 2019 Irish Sports Monitor showed that activity levels were increasing in line with the national sports policy. Sadly, as we all know, that did not come to pass and in mid-March, pitches and sports halls across the country began to fall silent. In response to the necessary public health restrictions, organised sport ceased entirely at the end of March.
The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business was introduced, providing our plan for the summer and a welcome route back towards activity in sport. As part of sport’s plan for returning, the expert group on the return to sport was established, chaired by my colleague, Peter Hogan.
This group has met 17 times to date, and I express our sincere thanks to its members for their invaluable contributions to the development of guidance for sports, gyms and leisure centres. I also recognise the excellent work the sporting bodies have done to develop comprehensive protocols for the safe return to training and competition.
As soon as phase 1 began, organised sport started to return, with individual sports such as angling, golf and hill walking developing protocols to enable people to return to activity. The return of our elite and high-performance athletes to training at their national centres on 8 June was a significant step forward. With the acceleration of the roadmap and the combination of phases, all sports were permitted to start again on 29 June.
I know the committee heard from the three larger national governing bodies, NGBs, this morning, and the Department and Sport Ireland have been in regular contact with them and the other national governing bodies throughout the pandemic, as well as the Federation of Irish Sport. As members heard this morning, the suspension of activity had a major financial impact on sporting bodies and clubs. The Government has made additional funding to support the sport bodies. This will help sports to cover their losses and also adapt to the new reality we now find ourselves in. A funding package of €70 million was announced on 19 June, with further measures announced in the July stimulus. The closing date for applications for this funding was on Monday, and I understand Sport Ireland is working to allocate and disburse this funding next month. We are also consulting Sport Ireland and the sporting bodies as we look ahead to the 2021 Estimates.
Our sporting organisations have worked hard to adapt and deal with the new reality we find ourselves in. It has been a time of innovation. Sport Ireland has created online courses to educate coaches and organisers. As influencers, our top athletes have helped to reinforce public health messaging and have supported people to stay active at home.
The new living with Covid plan provides welcome clarity to sport for the next six to nine months. In level 2 of the plan, the following currently applies in respect of sporting activity. Spectators are permitted at sports matches and events, with up to 100 permitted at outdoor events and 50 at indoor events. These numbers are in addition to players, officials and others required to host the events. For larger outdoor sports grounds with a fixed spectator capacity of a minimum 5,000 spectators, up to 200 spectators are permitted. Sports training is permitted, with athletes and players training in pods of 15 outdoors or six indoors. Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools are permitted to open, but must take appropriate steps to ensure social distancing. In Dublin, there is currently a further restriction on spectators at outdoor sports grounds with a fixed capacity of a minimum 5,000 spectators, where the limit on spectators is reduced to 100 people.
The return of some spectators is a very welcome development, but it is important to recognise that the risk of Covid-19 transmission remains. The expert group on return to sport is developing guidelines for sports clubs on how to safely manage spectators at matches and events at community sports facilities. As the committee heard earlier, the Department will be engaging with the field sports organisations to develop specific guidance for large sports stadiums, taking account of their size and the different conditions which apply for major sporting events.
We are confident that the resilience and recovery plan will enable sport to continue during the winter months for the benefit of public health and well-being. However, as we all know, the best way to facilitate this is to continue to adhere to the public health advice, namely, to maintain social distancing, practice appropriate hand hygiene and wear face coverings, where appropriate.
I will speak briefly about the supports the Department provides for the provision of sports facilities. As members will be aware, the sports capital programme is the primary vehicle for Government support for the development of sports facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment. Applications are accepted from voluntary, sporting and community organisations, national governing bodies of sport and local authorities. Schools are also eligible once they apply jointly with a sports club.
Over 12,000 projects have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to close to €1 billion. The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city. The most recent round of the sports capital programme in 2018 attracted a record 2,337 applications. Allocations were announced in January, May and November of last year, with a total of more than €56 million awarded to 1,648 different projects.