The New South Wales government is standing firm over its decision to allow the New Year cricket Test to go ahead at the Sydney Cricket Ground with crowds present, despite growing unease over the city’s Covid outbreak.
The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said on Thursday – a week out from the start of the Test between Australia and India – that she remained confident the event would be Covid-safe, even with as many as 20,000 fans potentially heading to the ground.
But Berejiklian, who has said a 50% capacity would be safer than people gathering in their homes, admitted the situation was evolving and the government would not shy away from imposing tougher restrictions should the need arise.
“If we need to reevaluate some of our settings, update the compliance, the compliance measures and the safety plan, we won’t hesitate to do that,” Berejiklian said.
“But if there is an opportunity for us to hold events we should … Community safety always comes first … but we also have to keep jobs going – we don’t want to see more people out of their job, out of their livelihood.
“If there’s an opportunity for us to also protect jobs and to improve the morale of our citizens and keep mental health high and to try to have a sense of normality, why shouldn’t we strive for that?”
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, told the ABC on Thursday morning he was relying on the advice of the chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, that “probably one of the safest places to be is outside in a ticketed, seated arrangement”.
But health experts have expressed growing unease at the prospect of hosting a large crowd at the SCG when the Covid-19 outbreak that originated in Sydney’s northern beaches has spread to other parts of the city, and to Victoria.
NSW recorded a further 10 locally acquired coronavirus cases on Wednesday.
Restrictions for New Year’s Eve celebrations have been announced and while the NSW government said masks would be handed out and people encouraged to wear them when not in their seats, widespread mask-wearing is yet to be mandated.
Prof Mike Toole, an epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute, said having fans at the game was “just too high a risk”.
“Also it’s inconsistent with the consensus we developed with all the states during the winter when both the AFL and the NRL agreed initially to play in front of no spectators,” Toole told Sunrise on Thursday morning.
“And then in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, as there were no cases, we started to bring in crowds. But in Sydney at the moment we’re right in the middle of what could be a very risky period.
“The safest option would be to have no spectators. Sitting outdoors is not high risk, but we do know that at Test matches people sing, they shout, they chant. So there is some danger particularly when people go and buy food, when they go to the toilet, when they queue up at turnstiles.
“If masks were mandated I would feel more comfortable. As they’re not, I would play it without spectators.”
His comment echoed those of the University of NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws, who said on Wednesday masks should be mandatory for travel to and from the match, but ideally it would not take place at all.
“A very blunt instrument that works very well is just cancelling it while we have this uptick in numbers,” she said.
The independent federal MP for the northern beaches seat of Warringah, Zali Steggall, also expressed frustration that the Test was going ahead with crowds in attendance, saying Berejiklian and Chant had “lost all credibility”.
Finding it incredibly hard to listen to @GladysB & Kerry Chant talk about avoiding super spreader events but a crowd at the SCG is ok! They have lost all credibility. Please listen to the community & cancel the crowd. @CricketAus this also your responsibility. #COVID19nsw #auspol
— 🌏 Zali Steggall MP (@zalisteggall) December 31, 2020
The NSW Labor leader, Jodi McKay, warned having crowds at the Test match ran the risk of spreading the virus and leading to a lockdown, and called for anyone already with a ticket to stay away from the SCG.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me to have 24,000 at the cricket when tens of thousands are being locked down in the northern beaches,” she said. “Everyone wants the cricket to go ahead but there is a general feeling that there should not be people at the cricket. This is about having no regrets and managing the risks. If we go ahead with crowds at the cricket we’re just opening it up to trouble.”
On Thursday Cricket Australia announced the postponement of the women’s ODI series against India, originally scheduled for later in January. The series will now be held next season, with plans to expand the tour to include an additional three Twenty20 Internationals.