About 1,200 players and staff from all corners of the globe will be subjected to what the Victorian government has described as the “strictest rules for tennis” in the world when they fly into Melbourne for the Australian Open from Thursday.
The tournament, which will begin on 8 February after warm-up events that start on 31 January, is the largest international sporting event to be held in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic and in effect will broadcast the country’s Covid-19 response to the world.
The Victorian police minister, Lisa Neville, said on Tuesday players and staff would need to test negative for the virus before flying to Australia and then undergo 14 days of mandatory hotel quarantine.
Quarantining players would be able to leave their rooms for up to five hours a day, but only to attend dedicated quarantine training venues set up at Melbourne Park, the National Tennis Centre and Albert Reserve. They will only be allowed to leave to train after a day two negative test, and players will be tested daily.
All other staff and officials will need to remain in their rooms at all times for the 14 days of quarantine.
There are three hotels that will host the overseas contingent, the Grand Hyatt, Pullman Albert Park and View Melbourne. A previous venue was scrapped due to a legal threat.
Any player or staff member who tests positive will be moved to another site, the Holiday Inn.
“We have put in place the strongest, the strictest rules that apply for tennis across the world,” Neville said.
“I mean, there are bubbles that are operating in Doha at the moment, but this is the strictest program in the world in terms of hotel quarantine for our tennis players.”
Neville’s comments came after a second player tested positive at an Australian Open qualifying event in Doha. US player Denis Kudla reportedly received his test result in the final game of his first round clash. He went on to win, but he was then forced to withdraw from the tournament.
Some public health experts have questioned the wisdom of holding the Australian Open at all. The University of New South Wales adjunct professor and infectious diseases expert, Prof Bill Bowtell, told The Australian on Tuesday national cabinet should delay the event.
“They shouldn’t allow people in for the Australian Open, that should go to history like the Grand Prix did,” he said. “I really think they have to explain now why they’re not stopping flights from the UK and having – as in Hong Kong – three week quarantines.”
It is widely expected that the Australian Grand Prix, scheduled for 21 March, will be delayed.
But Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said she was broadly supportive of the measures the Victorian government had put in place to manage the event.
She said initiatives including screening all staff involved in the program and transferring positive cases to health hotels meant it could be “as close to zero risk which you can get to the wider community”.
“I think it’s not a zero risk, you can never say it is,” she said. “But this is being managed as well as it possibly could be.”
Asked if the event should go ahead, Bennett said that epidemiologists “always want to minimise risk”, but that in practice that would mean not allowing anyone to enter Australia at all. Therefore, “balance” was vital.
“I think our health department has a reputation for being very conservative when taking those decisions,” she said.
“Just as we managed the MCG well enough, as we brought large numbers of people together, here we’re managing it in terms of the players, we’re keeping them in bubbles, and they’re going through that quarantine process,” she said.
“And we’re not talking large crowds in these events. I think this makes it manageable … and that’s where I would defer to the health department, who’ve looked in great detail at all of this.”
Tennis Australia will bear the cost of the quarantine program. It said last week tickets were being sold to 35% of Melbourne Park’s capacity, with the precinct split into three zones. The capacity could be altered, the sporting body added.
The government says hundreds of extra staff will be employed to manage the Australian Open hotel quarantine program, while police will be on site at each site.
Bennett said the fact the event was going ahead was a chance to demonstrate the success of Australia’s Covid-19 response.
“We want this to showcase what Australia has achieved and what we can offer in terms of safe events like this, but it’s high risk, should it go wrong, because it will be very public,” she said.