The successful completion of round one has given the AFL evidence that clubs and players could adhere to strict protocols – no player has tested positive to COVID-19 to date – which will be important in any proposal designed to demonstrate to government and medical authorities that a resumption poses no greater threat to the wider community.
How a quarantine hub, which would be more accurately described as a bubble, would work remains uncertain however tentative planning is underway within the AFL – with the idea one of many being considered.
The initial thinking would see six teams – with a skeleton list of personnel (potentially 30 players and 20 medical and football department staff) – plus broadcast staff, match day officials and umpires (close to 400 people) in one location to play a series of televised matches between each other. This could be replicated in three locations.
Air travel would be required, with chartered planes the obvious method, and a 14-day quarantine period would be likely although it would depend on the location and timing.
With no crowds, a secure ground suitable for AFLW or Marsh Series matches could be used if the standard venues weren’t feasible with players and staff transported by bus to each match.
Although most assume hotels for each club would be required, the AFL – which is yet to advance their thinking far on this specific issue – suspect accommodation that allowed those in the bubble to get fresh air and move around would be ideal. That would potentially mean resort style accommodation.
For the plan to work the AFL would need access to testing to ensure that anyone who went into the bubble was free of COVID-19, which would not only include players and officials but personnel responsible for running the accommodation.
While horse racing is relying on the relatively low bar of temperature testing to clear jockeys, the AFL would be unlikely to start until they had sufficient access to RT-PCR tests, using specimens from nasopharyngeal swabs, so they could ensure that any player or official who entered the hub was clear of the virus.
Until enough of these were available for the government to give the tick then the AFL would not proceed and even when they were available the AFL would be likely to meet the expense for their use.
In America Major League Baseball is considering a similar concept, which would see baseball played in Arizona, where testing for antibodies has been touted as a potential system.
Although such testing may play a part in any process there are enough concerns in Australia about the efficacy that it would be unlikely to remove enough risk for a competition to continue.
The AFL (and the AFLPA shares this concern) know that if a person who enters the bubble has COVID-19 then the risk of it spreading quickly through the hub is high.
Eliminating that risk as much as possible is essential while it is also critical that if an outbreak did happen inside the quarantine the health system was in a position to cope.
Such realities make a hub only practical well after the peak has occurred, with the AFL also wanting to make sure any serious injuries that might occur in a match can receive high level medical care as normal.
The AFL knows it is high stakes, which is why they are being guided by government, but as one CEO said they are also as keen as anyone to get games going as soon as it is safe to do so.
Football operations boss Steve Hocking is not silly. His mantra to “move slow to go quicker” is more relevant than ever as the AFL wants to avoid a stop-start season.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.