COVID is currently ripping through Australia, with record numbers of cases being identified and the highly contagious Omicron variant spreading in New South Wales. Meanwhile, New Zealand has reintroduced border restrictions this week until the end of February at the earliest. With both those things in mind, are the Women’s Ashes and World Cup in jeopardy?
The good news is that the short answer is no.
The final match of the Women’s Ashes is scheduled to take place on the 19th February; with the opening game of the World Cup due to take place on 4th March, and England playing Australia on the 5th.
As the regulations on entry to New Zealand currently stand, both Australia and England will be required to complete 10 days ‘Managed Isolation Quarantine’ (MIQ) between that final Ashes match and the start of their World Cup campaigns. Whilst MIQ is emphatically not prison, it is nonetheless strictly enforced ‘hard’ quarantine; but if it is the price of playing in the World Cup, it’s something that most players will take in their stride.
However, there is still a risk that players could be identified as COVID cases during MIQ, having brought it with them from Australia to New Zealand. Under these circumstances, they would (as things currently stand) be required to remain potentially considerably longer in MIQ, from 14 days after the positive test. In theory, this means that MIQ could last as long as 24 days. Though 16-18 would be more likely, this still means that the teams could be in danger of being unable to fulfil their opening fixtures if they brought 5 or 6 cases with them.
This is where the Ashes potentially becomes impacted – if the ICC want to minimize the risk, they need to ensure that all the players are in the country ideally 18-20 days before the tournament starts, which would mean that England and Australia will have two options – to either curtail the Ashes, or to play the final matches between the ‘A’ teams, while the main squads fly earlier to New Zealand.
It is extremely unlikely that the New Zealand government, committed as they are to a ‘Zero COVID’ strategy, will relax their rules earlier than currently anticipated. Worryingly, it is much more likely that the rules will actually become more strict. With the lag between infections and deaths in the first world currently running at 17-21 days, it is possible that we may see a significant increase in deaths in Australia in mid-to-late January, and pressure subsequently on the New Zealand government for a total border closure which they may find difficult to resist.
Whether they would make a special exception under these circumstances for hundreds of players, managers, analysts and other staff to enter the country for the World Cup is an open question. The New Zealand government have previously publicly stated that the World Cup is their top priority in terms of sporting events taking place in the country this summer, but their priority understandably remains the health of the New Zealand public, and that’s what would be worrying me if I was the ICC.
Of course, as fans we can pursue a strategy of keeping our fingers crossed and hoping it will all be okay, but that’s really not something we want the ICC to be doing. If they have contingency plans, I’d hope they’d be giving them serious consideration right now, because the idea of teams having to withdraw at the very last minute, or worse while the tournament is actually being played, is not one we want to contemplate. If there is one thing worse than no World Cup, it is half a World Cup.