Australia’s Covid lockdown mania hits the rocks of financial reality over ‘sacred’ Sydney Ashes Test

The omicron tsunami is breaking in Australia, shattering the country’s complacent assumption that it could defeat Covid-19 purely through border closures, mask mandates and endless QR code checks. A total of 32,946 cases were reported on Friday, eclipsing the national total for the whole of 2020 in just 24 hours. New South Wales, host state for next week’s increasingly precarious fourth Ashes Test, recorded a positivity rate of 14.3 per cent.

It was little wonder, in a land cowed by state premiers’ relentlessly alarmist rhetoric about the virus, that the crowds lining the foreshore of Sydney Harbour were sparser and edgier than usual. Nowhere is the anxiety felt more acutely, though, than in the offices of Cricket Australia, who stand to lose an estimated £11 million if the two remaining Tests at the SCG and Hobart’s Blundstone Arena are cancelled.

By the letter of Australia’s unyielding biosecurity rules, the nuclear option looks increasingly plausible. As the Ashes teams prepared to board their separate charter flights to Sydney, a Big Bash game between the Melbourne Stars and Perth Scorchers was cancelled as a consequence of a single positive test among the Stars’ support staff. It mattered not that the players due to compete were unaffected. The default response, as mandated by Australia’s state of Covid terror, was to jump at shadows and call the event off altogether.

Except the commercial imperatives of the Ashes make this cancel-everything impulse difficult to sustain. For CA, the series simply has to be completed, even as states’ daily caseloads continue on a near-vertical trajectory. There is no contingency of postponement: England cannot, unlike with next summer’s rescheduled fifth Test against India, swing by Australia in 12 months’ time to tick off a couple of dead rubbers. Either they play here in Sydney or they fly home. As such, the hosts are compelled to bend every one of their own rules to make it happen, even after seven members of the England camp have tested positive, not to mention Australian batsman Travis Head.

Even if cases multiply among the home team, the New South Wales government remains adamant that the show shall go on. “The SCG Test is sacred,” said Brad Hazzard, the state’s health minister. “It’s an important date at the start of the third year of our life with Covid-19.” For any politician to describe a Test match as “sacred”, especially when the overall contest has already been decided, suggests this Ashes series has officially become too big to fail.

At federal level, there is an insistence by prime minister Scott Morrison that Australia must pivot towards a mentality of “living with Covid”. It is a welcome change, if about two years too late. But the signs are that the country’s coexistence with the virus is still anything but harmonious. While Australia likes to imagine that it is envied from afar as a south Pacific paradise, its entire ethos on containing Covid is falling apart at the seams. Queues for testing often extend beyond four hours, with scores of people not receiving results until after their validity has expired. The orders for “close contacts” to isolate have proved unworkable, with businesses across Sydney struggling to cope with the loss of so many members of staff at once.

Into the midst of this chaos step England’s cricketers. As if it were not galling enough being trounced by Australia, the ever-shifting mosaic of state laws leaves them in a condition of permanent suspense. They agreed to undertake 14 days’ quarantine on the Gold Coast, only for Queensland to scrap the requirement the day after the first Test was over. They watched bewildered as Pat Cummins’ fateful proximity to a case at an Adelaide restaurant led to even tighter restrictions on their social bubbles. In Melbourne, the rare pleasure of a Christmas lunch with families was soon followed by the panic of positive tests. It will hardly be surprising if in Sydney, their patience is frayed beyond breaking point.

This is a country bitterly divided on its Covid philosophy. Just as New South Wales is criticised for a supposed “let it rip” policy, Western Australia is so extreme in its efforts to seal its borders that it might as well secede from the federation. The schisms do not lend themselves to holding an Ashes series under any coherent protocols. Never mind how dismally England are playing, half the time they have no idea if they will be allowed to play at all. It is no way to run a tour, let alone one of such “sacred” significance. 

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