Health experts have cautiously endorsed the Victorian government’s decision to push ahead with hosting the Australian Open, saying the positive Covid-19 test recorded by former world number one Andy Murray before arriving at the tournament showed the protocols were working.
As Victoria recorded no new cases of the virus for the ninth day in a row on Friday, the state’s health minister, Martin Foley, confirmed that both Murray and American Madison Keys had returned positive coronavirus tests and would be unable to travel to Melbourne without first returning a negative test.
“Mr Murray and the other 1,240 people as part of the program need to demonstrate that if they’re coming to Melbourne, they have returned a negative test,” he said.
“Should Mr Murray arrive, and I have no indication that he will, he will be subject to those same rigorous arrangements as everyone else.”
The decision to allow the grand slam to go ahead while thousands of Victorians remain stranded interstate due to the closed border with New South Wales has drawn criticism from some quarters, including the state’s opposition.
On Friday the state’s opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, accused the government of treating foreign tennis players better than stranded Victorians.
“For [premier] Daniel Andrews to prioritise bringing tennis players from Covid hotspot countries to Australia, rather than bringing home Victorians who are stuck interstate – it’s worse than a double fault, it’s a double standard,” he said.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce also hit out at the Victorian government for allowing overseas sports stars to fly in from places where the virus was “raging”, but not from Sydney which has recorded no cases of community transmission for two days in a row.
“Victoria’s approach to Sydney seems to be out of proportion with the actual risk. And that makes it hard to reconcile the decision to allow over 1,000 people in from overseas for the Australian Open from countries where the virus is raging,” Joyce said in a statement on Friday.
“But – at the same time – to deny people who actually live in the state the right to return with some basic precautions that reflect the extremely low level of community transmission in Sydney, is bizarre at a policy level and devastating at a social level.”
He said Qantas had been forced to cancel nearly 3,000 flights between Melbourne and Sydney due since 20 December due to the border closure.
But health experts say the protocols put in place by both the government and the sport’s governing body Tennis Australia gave them confidence the event could go ahead successfully.
“You can never get the risk down to nothing, there’s always going to be a little bit of risk in holding an event like this, but you can only judge the Victorian government on its history and they have been, some would say, over the top in their cautious approach so far and there’s no way they’ve suddenly changed that,” La Trobe University epidemiologist Hassan Vally told the Hunturdeals.
Players began arriving in Melbourne on Thursday ahead of a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine. Unlike other arrivals, the roughly 1,200 players and support staff will be able to leave their rooms for a daily five-hour window for practice.
Event organisers have changed ticketing for the tournament by scrapping the traditional ground pass in favour of a “zone” system. Melbourne Park would be split into three zones to limit movement within the venue, and physical distancing measures have been introduced within arenas and in queues for food and drink.
Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist from Deakin University, said the positive tests recorded by both Murray and Keys prior to arriving in Australia were “a positive sign the screening prior to departure is working”.
“The whole thing has been scrutinised quite closely by the health department and we know they’re quite concerned and conservative about what they will accept as a safe protocol, and that I think is reassuring,” she said.
“They seem to have found that line that everyone thinks that it’s both safe to come and that the health department thinks it’s safe to hold. The risk in all these things of course is that if it goes awry, it’s very public that things haven’t worked, and I think that in itself would have meant meticulous preparation and now operation as this whole thing rolls out.”
Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist from the University of NSW, said she believed it “would be better to postpone all mass events that have the chance of infection seeding the community from quarantine”.
“But as authorities are determined to go ahead with events like the cricket and tennis then they need to tighten up potential seeding events by requiring staff at quarantine hotels to wear a mask and eye protection inside at all times,” she said.
Thousands of Victorians remain stranded in NSW even after the state reopened its border to regional parts of the state this week. NSW recorded zero new cases of the virus for the second day in a row on Friday, but Foley said the government was not ready to reopen the border to greater Sydney.
“We’re more than confident that our colleagues in NSW are mopping this up, but there have been chains of unknown transmission for many weeks now in Sydney,” he said.
“I understand the frustrations and the dislocation this is causing but even more so I understand the frustration and dislocation that another cluster outbreak in Victoria would cause.”