The New South Wales government insists that it is safe for thousands of cricket fans to attend the New Year’s Test in Sydney, despite a spike in Covid-19 cases and further restrictions on outdoor events that have led to calls for the match to be played behind closed doors.
Cricket Australia confirmed late on Monday that the third Test match against India starting on 7 January would go ahead at the Sydney Cricket Ground as planned with an expected reduced capacity of 50% – around 24,000 spectators.
The CA announcement was made before NSW recorded 18 cases of local coronavirus transmission on Wednesday – the state’s highest in 10 days – with a new cluster in Sydney’s inner west and several other cases outside the northern beaches.
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, also announced outdoor gatherings would be restricted to a maximum of 30 people for New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney.
However, Berejiklian said the health advice was that going to the SCG for the Test could be safer than gathering at someone’s house to watch it on television.
“The best health advice tells us outdoor ticketed seated events are safer than household gatherings, and that’s just a fact,” Berejiklian said.
Masks will be handed out on public transport to any fans who were allowed to make their way to the ground.
“We have certainly taken some additional steps to make sure that public transport masks are used, we’re looking at some aspects of the mixing, but seated outdoor poses less risk than people perhaps gathering in households,” the NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said.
“We have got faith in the transport plan and the work that the Sydney Cricket Ground has done, but we are looking over the plans as we speak to ensure that we can strengthen all elements.”
Chant said they would monitor the situation and provide an update on plans for the cricket Test by 2 January – five days out from the start of the match.
But Professor Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist with the University of NSW and head of the biosecurity research program at the Kirby Institute, said the risk was too great to have any spectators at the Sydney match.
At the “very least,” masks should be mandated for spectators, she said.
“I won’t be resting easy until after the second week of January,” she said. “We’ve got the Test match being played on the seventh of January, which will be right at that period when we would expect a surge of cases following New Year’s Eve, which is very bad timing.
“I think it’s just too much of a risk. I think they can still play the Test match. But I think the spectators should be watching it on television from home. The fact they’re going ahead without a mask mandate in place is really risky.”
Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University, said he understood the importance of holding events such as the New Year’s Test, but that a balance needed to be struck between the risks and benefits associated with that.
“It’s really challenging to get your settings right and get a proportionate response to the situation,” Vally said. “You can cut the risk to zero by cancelling the Test and cancelling all other events, or you can try to work out what’s an acceptable risk.”
The Queensland government has granted exemptions to players and officials allowing them to cross the otherwise closed border with NSW for the fourth Test. Once there, they will be required to stay in a hub and only allowed to leave to play or train.
The CA interim CEO, Nick Hockley, said on Wednesday he was confident the biosecure bubble in which players and staff have lived all summer would remain watertight, allowing the remaining two Test matches to go ahead regardless of any spike in cases.
“That was precisely the reason why we have our biosecurity protocols,” Hockley said. “It’s why we have measures in place and why we are in a bubble in Sydney.
“The arrangements we have with the Queensland government are that we can keep the players and broadcast crew all safe and they can move safely into Brisbane.”
A Queensland Health spokesperson said the increase in cases in Sydney was “concerning” but it would continue to work with CA on plans to hold the fourth Test in Brisbane.
“Both teams and their officials would need to follow the same arrangements Queensland has put in place for other sporting codes like the NRL and AFL,” the spokesperson said.
“When teams travel from declared hotspots, they would immediately go into quarantine hotels and leave only to train or play matches. Broadcasting staff essential to televising the match must follow similar rules.”
Any changes to the state’s position will be determined closer to the Test, when the Covid-19 risk is clearer.
Asked if people from the northern beaches should be buying tickets for the Sydney Test, Chant said: “I think there’s a long time between now and January 7.
“We will be handing out masks on public transport going into the SCG, and advising people to wear masks when they are not physically at their seat,” she added.
She also asked fans to be mindful of the risks of “screaming and chanting, particularly when they are not in their fixed location”.
“There are a number of strategies laid out in our Covid-safe plans that allow for movement in and out so that people are not as likely to come into contact with each other.
“And many of our larger venues have quite sophisticated movements where people are designated to come in particular gates and, therefore, again avoid that crossover.”