Big problem with NRL’s grand virus plan

Australia’s deputy chief medical officer has warned the NRL it cannot operate as "a law unto themselves" over a plan to restart the game as early as May 28 and he’s not impressed with sports’ fans dream of a virus-free NRL island.

The bespectacled epidemiologist who is one of the masterminds behind Australia's successful coronavirus response, Professor Paul Kelly admitted on Good Friday that his "mind boggles" at the prospect of quarantining players and staff on an NRL island as some have proposed, in Queensland.

“It sounds like a reality show they might continue it on, not just the playing, but what happens for the rest of the week, the mind boggles,'' he said in Canberra.

"If they’re by themselves and they’re away from the rest of society, then that is a thing. But I just reiterate the young men and women who play the game won’t be the only ones there. “They need to think carefully about their coaching staff and other supporters. And think about their social responsibility, even on the island."

He also warned some of the older rugby league greats and coaches would need to be mothballed or kept away from the games, for their own personal safety.

"There's other people around the teams, Wayne Bennett is in his 70s, he would be in a vulnerable group,'' he said.

"Ricky Stuart with the mighty Raiders, he would potentially be in a vulnerable group, so thinking about the team, not just the players, but those – the support around them, is important. And, look, they're making their plans for the road out I encourage them to do so in other sports. But whether May is the time will remain to be seen and definitely they'll need to get some permission to do that."

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Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett. Picture: Dean Lewins/AAPSource:AAP

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAPSource:AAP

But he warned the main problem is it could set a poor example to hundreds of communities still subject to tougher shutdowns.

"I don't think they're a law unto themselves. Some of the players and coaches may think so, but they're part of society and they have a part – as we have all done, to support not only safety for themselves but for all of us,'' he said.

"To be really frank about this, we all have a place in this and if we loosen the social distancing measures at the moment it can have an implication down the track. I've said here before on average, what we know about this virus, if we don't have these social distancing measures, one person can lead to 400 other cases within a month.

"And so, that is the sort of explosive epidemic we've seen in other countries. And we just cannot afford at this stage to be considering that happening."

Despite the fact that the NRL has failed to secure any official approvals to restart the game, Broncos CEO Paul White has announced there is a "real sense of hope" over the proposed May 28 season start.

"Having May 28 as a target for a restart to the competition provides real hope for everyone at the club and throughout the wider rugby league community," he said on the club's website.

Cameron Smith of the Storm during the round 2 NRL match against Cronulla Shark. Picture: Craig Golding/AAPSource:AAP

Earlier, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard stuck a more helpful tone, admitting restarting the NRL might have "mental health benefits".

“If the NRL want to go ahead, happy to have the chat and make sure, with medical advice, as to whether or not it’s appropriate,” Mr Hazzard said.

“Whether this is the right balance, I’m happy to talk to the NRL, because as Health Minister, I also know that we need to have a sense of balance about our life, a sense of mental health. I know a lot of people enjoy seeing sport. We can have that conversation with them. I’m not giving any indication one way or the other."

But crucially, he revealed the NRL had failed to secure any approvals from health officials before announcing plans to restart the game.

His last conversation with the NRL's Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys was a month ago.

“But that was before they actually made a decision to shut the game down. So, I haven’t had any discussions with them at this stage,'' he said.

Prof Kelly did reveal that Australia could be on the cusp of not just suppressing the virus but ensuring it died out in some states and regions.

"There's only a couple of thousand of those 6,000 cases are actual local transmission," he said.

"So, we need to see what happens with those and to learn from other countries that have going through a much more difficult time with much larger epidemics to see what happens as they pass that peak and see what happens from there.

"It is not time to take the foot off the brake. And we need to really consider how to go to the next phase very carefully, and weigh up the pros and cons of all that. That will be our task in the coming weeks."

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