With the UK focused on returning to work, attention was turned this week to the footballer’s return to work, with the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’. Players from both Chelsea and Watford have expressed concern about returning to training on safety grounds. Joseph Lappin, Head of Employment, speaks to the Independent about the legal position.

In the article, Joseph says:

“Under normal circumstances a footballer cannot simply refuse to train. Asking players to return to work and train is a lawful instruction. Ordinarily, football clubs should consider stopping paying footballers who refuse to train because such absence would amount to unauthorised leave.

“But these are unique times. Returning to training when the threat of contracting Covid-19 remains a very real one, and raises important questions about health and safety. Footballers may reasonably consider that intense football training, that will involve physical contact between players, is conducive to the spread of Covid-19.

“The government guidance is that anyone who cannot work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work. However, all employers, including football clubs, have a legal duty to provide a safe place of work for their staff.

“Footballers that refuse to return to training because they reasonably believe that doing so would pose a serious and imminent risk to their health and safety are protected under law.”

The article also looks at suggestions that players who opt-out of playing should receive less pay. Responding to this, Joseph comments:

“Any football club that chooses to stop paying players that cite serious health and safety concerns as the reason for refusing to train could face breach of contract claims. It would take a bold chairman to stop paying players who refuse to train on legitimate health and safety grounds, especially at those clubs where players or staff have tested positive for Covid-19.”

On the subject of furloughing players, the article says:

‘The Independent has been told that some clubs have nevertheless been talking about furloughing players, arguing they’d have little option. Lappin considers this unlikely, and it’s also where it becomes more and more evident professional football is so different from other jobs.’ Joseph adds:

“I don’t think Premier League footballers are realistically at risk of being placed on furlough leave. Under the rules of the furlough scheme, the players wouldn’t be allowed to train or play. What’s more, if a club did furlough a player, and didn’t agree to top up the player’s pay, a footballer earning £3m per year would stand to lose up to £2.97m. The relationship between club and player would be damaged, perhaps irretrievably.

“Players have significant bargaining power – they are not like ordinary workers – they are also commodities with a significant transfer value.”
The article suggests that the position within other countries’ football leagues is likely to be considered. Joseph says:

“If, as we all hope, the infection rate continues to fall, it will become harder for footballers to argue that training and playing matches poses a serious and imminent risk to their health and safety. If test results show that no playing or coaching staff have tested positive for Covid-19 and football clubs have had time to implement robust safety measures, Premier League football clubs are likely to take a dim view of those players who refuse to take part in training and matches.”

Click here to read a full copy of the article on the Independent website.



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