LONDON – The UK government is increasingly concerned that football players hug and kiss at celebrations, risk coronavirus infections and that the sport can continue during the last lockdown.

Outbreaks among Premier League teams forcing games to be postponed have added to concerns about the avoidable and very visible close contact between players.

“Everyone in the country has had to change the way they treat people and how they work,” tweeted Sports Secretary Nigel Huddleston on Wednesday. “Footballers are no exception. Football has COVID safety guidelines. Footballers must follow these and football authorities must strictly enforce them.”

Amid an increase in COVID-19 cases, the Premier League has warned clubs that penalties will be imposed for violating the rules.

Huddleston posted a message on Twitter about the league’s letter to clubs stating that players should avoid handshakes, high fives, hugs and that they were “lucky enough to keep playing”.

That warning was ignored as Sheffield United and Manchester United players hugged and celebrated their victories on Tuesday.

And on Wednesday nothing really changed – despite renewed requests from the government earlier in the day.

Almost all Manchester City outfielders congratulated Phil Foden on his goal, which resulted in a 1-0 win over Brighton, and ended in a big group hug.

“It’s instinct and reaction. It’s difficult,” said city manager Pep Guardiola.

In a 1-1 draw between Tottenham and Fulham, the celebrations after Harry Kane’s goal for Tottenham were rather muted, although Son Heung-min, Moussa Sissoko, Sergio Reguilon, Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele complimented him with punches and high five. Fulham’s late compensation, however, sparked many very close hugs.

The league configured protocols for the return of the games in March in collaboration with Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, who urged players not to hug and kiss each other on Wednesday.

“We are in a very dangerous place now,” Van-Tam said on LBC radio as he discussed the problem. “Any close human contact that is avoidable should be avoided as one in three of us gets the infection and has no symptoms at all.”

A more contagious variant of COVID-19 has spread across the UK, where more than 83,000 people have died from the disease. The UK reported 1,243 deaths on Tuesday, the second highest number of daily deaths since the pandemic started last year.