“If it’s spreading in young people, the players are getting together every week for the games, congregating in groups creates a risk of transmission because one of them has asymptomatic infection, they could spread it and then the families and other loved ones, staff, doctors, physios and other teammates could get it …”
The professor spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, mostly because she wanted to avoid a media frenzy.
Since being hired on March 14, on the same day the game announced it would be playing in front of no spectators, she has been in daily contact with the NRL.
In a phone call with NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg on Monday afternoon, she recommended one of the world’s last professional competitions still standing should stop. And when you hear her terrifying advice, you understand why the ARL Commission listened to it.
“On the balance of it, I’m certain by mid-April you would’ve been forced to cancel the competition anyway,” she said. “Was it worth preserving it for a couple more weeks, while putting players at a risk that’s increasing every single day? They would’ve been at more risk than if they were at home, laying low and being with their families than travelling around and playing.”
And for how long would that be? Could they be back later this year? Early June?
“I don’t think it’s going to be this year,” she said. “I think we will be dealing with this epidemic for the better part of this year. I’m really hoping we will have a vaccine next year. The idea is to manage the catastrophic disruption to society until we can vaccinate people and protect them. Then we can resume normal societal functions — like sport. But that won’t be any time this year.”
Her advice has been controversial in the eyes of some: to keep playing, as long there are no spectators and as long as players self-isolated and maintained social distancing.
“That was feasible in the early stages of the epidemic because the spectators had stopped,” she said. “The thing we were concerned about with sporting events, like any mass gathering, were crowds huddled up in intense transmission settings. When that decision [to keep playing] was made, the epidemic wasn’t as big as it is now.”
Over the course of the weekend, and then Monday morning, things changed in her eyes.
First, it emerged that more than 2700 people had inexplicably walked off the Ruby Princess cruise ship at Circular Quay, getting on trains and in taxis, with dozens of them later testing positive to COVID-19.
Then the NSW government took the extraordinary step of closing the beaches of the eastern suburbs after tens of thousands of people converged on Bondi Beach, sitting centimetres from one another.
Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that schools would remain open.
“That to me meant the prospect of this coming under control is now slim,” she said. “The issue that really swayed me was the fact they didn’t go hard with the social distancing in NSW, which is the epicentre.”
At the same time, Greenberg was in his office at League Central hammering every contact he knew in Queensland government, which had just announced it was closing its borders.
He was asking them to push through an exemption for NRL teams flying in and out of the state when cabinet met on Tuesday.
Then he spoke to his biosecurity and pandemic expert in a conference call and Queensland became irrelevant.
“We were now down a one-way street with no more room left to turn,” Greenberg recalled.
There is speculation the NRL was grounded on the advice of governments, not their hired expert. Asked if the NRL had been ordered to stop playing, Greenberg said: “Not by government — nor by her. It was left to the commission to make a considered decision. When you listen to that type of advice, it’s not a difficult one to make even if there are very difficult consequences.”
The potential consequences of playing are far more dire.
“From my analysis of the epidemic, we are on the upward part of the curve,” the professor said. “There’s absolutely no indication about the flattening of the curve. Things are going to get a lot worse very quickly. We are going to see double the number of cases next week, and then double that the week after. It’s going to be hitting our health system substantially. We will know that when the ICU beds are full.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.