Two Australian Open players test positive to Covid as authorities say no reprieve for those in strict quarantine

This article is more than 1 month old
Australian Open signage at Melbourne Park. Two international tennis players who flew into Australia for the event have tested positive to coronavirus.
Australian Open signage at Melbourne Park. Two international tennis players who flew into Australia for the event have tested positive to coronavirus. The players on flights where passengers have tested positive have not been allowed to leave their hotels to train. Photograph: Mike Owen/Getty Images
Australian Open signage at Melbourne Park. Two international tennis players who flew into Australia for the event have tested positive to coronavirus. The players on flights where passengers have tested positive have not been allowed to leave their hotels to train. Photograph: Mike Owen/Getty Images

First published on Mon 18 Jan 2021 22.53 EST

Two Australian Open tennis players have tested positive to Covid-19, bringing the number of positive cases associated with the tournament to seven.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, confirmed three new cases related to the tennis grand slam that were announced earlier on Tuesday included a woman in her 20s and two men in their 30s. Two are tennis players and one is a non-playing participant.

Sutton also said two previous positive Covid-19 cases that sparked a hard lockdown of some tennis players in quarantine had been reclassified as cases of “viral shedding” linked to previous infection.

But he said it was too early to clear the flights the reclassified cases were travelling on, meaning all passengers, including 47 players who were deemed close contacts, must remain in hard lockdown.

Unlike other players who are quarantining, the players on flights where passengers have tested positive have not been allowed to leave their hotels for five hours a day to train, sparking complaints of unfair treatment.

On Tuesday morning, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, indicated some players in strict lockdown could be let out due to the reclassification, saying: “I can foreshadow that a number of cases that are linked to the Australian Open … have been reclassified as shedding rather than being actively infected.”

“If you’ve got say 30 people who are deemed a close contact because they’ve been on a plane with a case, and the case is no longer an active case, but a case of historic shedding, that would release those people from that hard lockdown,” Andrews said.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Sutton said no changes to the strictest quarantine conditions would be made just yet.

“While two cases of viral shedding were confirmed yesterday, this does not change broader assessment of the player group in hotel quarantine,” his statement said. “As yet, none of the three affected flights have been cleared as a result of the two reclassified cases.”

Shedding means someone could have genetic remnants of the virus from a previous infection, without being infectious. Viral shedding of fragments that are infectious usually begins within a few days of contracting the virus, whether people have symptoms or not, but shedding of fragments that are not infectious can continue for longer periods, especially after severe cases of the virus. People can still test positive for the virus even while their shedding is no longer infectious.

Other players are serving their mandatory quarantine in Adelaide before travelling to Melbourne for the Australian Open. Australian player Nick Kyrgios, ranked 47th in the world, called world No 1 Novak Djokovic, from Serbia, a “tool” for complaining about his hotel quarantine arrangements and for making a list of requests to authorities, including that players be moved to private houses with tennis courts.

In an interview from quarantine with Israeli sports channel Sport 5, Spanish world No 13 player Roberto Bautista Agut said: “I can not imagine staying two weeks like this … It’s really really tough.”

Andrews reiterated that quarantining players would not receive special treatment amid criticism from some that Melbourne should not be taking the risk of hosting the Australian Open at all.

“People are free to ask for things, but the answer is no,” Andrews said. “They knew what they were travelling into and we are not cutting corners or making special arrangements. They are the appropriate arrangements. They are based on public health advice … we know if there is an outbreak in any part of the country it becomes an issue very, very fast.

“So, no, those are the rules. Those people are being very well provided for. They knew that is what they were coming to. We are not making any changes.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, was asked on Tuesday whether it was appropriate that Victoria was allowing international arrivals for the Australian Open while farmers were struggling to fill labour shortages caused by the lack of foreign workers.

“I think we can manage a tennis Open and pick fruit,” Morrison said during his week-long tour of drought-stricken areas of Queensland. “It doesn’t have to be a choice between the two. We’re a clever country.”

Queensland health authorities reported no new cases of community transmission for the eighth consecutive day on Tuesday.

Asked about a proposal from the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, to quarantine returned travellers in regional areas, Morrison said: “I’m very open to these sorts of ideas and I look forward to seeing the proposal and we will go from there.”

Restrictions were on track to be eased in Queensland on Friday if the trend of no cases continued, Palaszczuk said.

The state’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, said she would like to see people continue to wear masks once restrictions eased. Young also said masks would remain mandatory on flights and at airports. She said of cases identified in returned travellers in hotel quarantine, there had been “quite a few positives” for the more infectious B117 strain first identified in the UK.

“So over the last few weeks, we’re seeing the majority of the people coming back from the UK who we can sequence have the new strain,” she said. “But they’re in hotel quarantine the same as everyone else. There’s no increased risk of transmission during that incubation period.”

In New South Wales, no new cases of community transmission were recorded for a second day in a row, but authorities were concerned that just 10,621 tests were done. The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, urged people to continue getting tested, particularly those in Auburn, Berala and surrounding suburbs, as well as across western and south-west Sydney.

A drive through Covid-19 testing facility at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Tuesday.
A drive-through Covid-19 testing facility at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Tuesday. Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

The ACT was set to remove travel restrictions on people from Sydney’s northern beaches from 3pm on Tuesday, and release 75 people in quarantine. There are 10 other local government areas still on the territory’s restrictions list.

Berejiklian said Victoria and Queensland should ease their travel restrictions too, describing border closures as “hasty and over-reaching decisions” and saying Victoria should have reopened to greater Sydney “a long time ago”.

“I don’t really understand the traffic light system,” Berejiklian said. “There is currently no part of Australia that is a hotspot, therefore there should be no border which is closed to Australian citizens.” She said border decisions should be based “on the science and the facts”.

Andrews said Victoria’s border restrictions with other states were reviewed daily. There are 10 local government areas in NSW still considered “red zones” by the Victorian government, after most of the greater Sydney region was downgraded to orange on Monday.

“We review the data and look at what’s happening there, and as soon as we can release any of those local government areas, that is to move them from red to orange, that’s exactly what we will do,” Andrews said.