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Coronavirus warnings fail to discourage Festival-goers


Racegoers using hand sanitiser at Cheltenham. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Racegoers using hand sanitiser at Cheltenham. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Getty Images

Racegoers using hand sanitiser at Cheltenham. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Aided by a walking stick and already nursing a sniffle, 88-year-old Mick Easterby is what might be described by the NHS as "high risk" amid the coronavirus crisis. But try telling him that.

"People are getting windy for nothing," says the oldest trainer on the circuit, joining his contemporaries in Cheltenham's parade ring yesterday.

"It's all right. You just have to carry on. Think nothing of it. There's always something popping up. You've got to learn to survive it. What is it any way? More people die of flu than this coronavirus. You have to die somehow. What does it matter?"

Easterby's words are hardly in line with official warnings but the same defiance was mirrored across the site yesterday, with crowds dipping below average but not by much.

More than 300 hand dispensers were dotted across the venue but by mid-afternoon the strict instructions on the loudspeakers to keep hands clean had been forgotten by many.

Viv Turner, a 58-year-old restaurant owner from Belfast, was among the dutiful few who made their way for a squirt of hand gel between races.

"To be quite honest I was initially shocked everyone is so relaxed about it all," he said. "But once you've got a bet on and had a beer it's business as usual. Clearly, if I'm going to get it, it will probably happen today.

"I have family members who had asthma so I'm going to enjoy today, but go and stay in a Travelodge if I start coughing and sneezing in the next few days."

Racegoers had been left in no doubt about their hygiene duties as they arrived on site. Amid the announcement of runners and riders for the opening races was a recorded message on the loudspeaker instructing the crowds to wash their hands. "This is a government notice," the message declared.

The racecourse last night announced the crowd as 60,664, more than 7,000 down on last year's first-day attendance of 67,934. Regional director of the Jockey Club Ian Renton said: "We are very happy… considering the uncertainty of the last fortnight."

With the only pharmacist selling out of individual hand gel bottles by the end of lunchtime, punters were instead reliant on the extra sinks at the 2,000 toilets and the communal hand sanitisers. Virus fears had no discernible impact, however, on the list of celebrity attendees.

The VIP list included Joe Marler, fresh from his Alun-Wyn Jones fondling row, and his England team-mates. Zara Tindall defied any fears over the virus by mingling freely in the parade ring as part of her new role as racecourse director. Her mother Princess Anne has her estate nearby and for them, like the general public in attendance, they appeared intent on making the most of this annual respite from ordinary life.

The aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the TV stars, city types and farmers and despite the hygiene signs on every corner, by early evening, most had forgotten about the chaos elsewhere in the world due to the virus.

If members of the crowd are going to contract the virus, they were planning to go down laughing. One group of lads showed up in face masks - but explained they were only for "banter".

Mark Jeffers, of Stockport, squeezed sanitiser on to his hand and licked it. "There's alcohol in here," he said.

The bars, restaurants and the shopping village were also putting on a brave face. Not a business in town had closed its doors due to virus.

"Money talks," said a taxi driver, who was wiping his car seats with antiseptic wipes every hour. The event is worth £100 million to the local economy.

Renton said the decision to press ahead was ultimately the government's. "We shouldn't be making our own decisions on this," he said.

The Jockey Club's measures to try to keep coronavirus at bay had not fallen entirely on deaf ears. At the mobile pharmacy, James Powell was disinfecting his counter after almost every customer.

Sandra Jacobs (61) from Oxford, added: "I've made my husband use the sanitiser four times. He's washed his hands more today than he probably ever has done. We're surrounded by men who don't seem to care about it, though - it does make me wonder why am I here?"

Perhaps she should have a word with Mick Easterby. (© Daily Telegraph, London)