The advice to proceed with Formula 1’s Australian Grand Prix amid escalating coronavirus fears “may change” according to the state premier, as 2020’s opening races remain at risk.
April’s Chinese Grand Prix is the only F1 race to be postponed because of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has infected more than 110,000 people and killed more than 4,000.
However, in recent days doubt has increased over the fate of the Australian, Bahrain and Vietnam races, with the season due to start in Melbourne on Sunday.
Australian GP organisers have remained adamant that the event can be held with minimal disruption.
But on Tuesday Daniel Andrews, premier of the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, warned “extreme measures” were on the horizon for citizens as the situation progresses towards being a pandemic.
In a news conference, Andrews explained why the Australian GP still has the green light, but added the situation is expected to escalate to a point where all schools are closed and major sporting events are disrupted at some point.
“The reason the Grand Prix is not cancelled, or the footy [Australia’s national league, which begins next week] is not cancelled, today is because the advice says we don’t need to do that today,” said Andrews.
“That advice may change.
“We don’t have sufficient community transmission to make that decision today, or close all of our schools, or tell people they can’t go to the footy, or the movies.
“But that time, the experts tell us, is going to come.”
The advice is only likely to change and ban major sporting events like the GP if officials suddenly deem it “simply unacceptable to allow people to be in those numbers, on that scale, that close together”.
On Monday, the Australian government’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy had said he would be willing to attend the F1 race.
“We don’t believe that, at the moment, there’s material risk in going to public gatherings in Australia,” he said.
“But we are saying that if you returned from a high risk country, we would like you not to attend public gatherings.”
In order to facilitate the grand prix happening as planned, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation has worked with health agencies and emergency services to implement a range of measures around preparation, planning and response.
But there are concerns this is not enough given the potential risk posted by the influx of members of the F1 paddock who risk carrying the virus.
On Monday evening, F1 responded by outlining the “scientific approach” it has taken to “help assess and implement the appropriate steps needed to minimise risks and protect personnel”
Many F1 personnel have travelled to Australia from Italy, which is the worst-affected country outside mainland China and has been placed under a nationwide lockdown by the government.
Bahrain, due to host round two of the championship the Sunday after Australia, made the unprecedented decision last weekend to ban members of the public from its grand prix.
It will be the first F1 race to be held ‘behind closed doors’ with only teams and media allowed to attend, and support being offered to stop those personnel being automatically quarantined if arriving via high-risk transit locations like Singapore and Hong Kong.
When announcing the decision, Bahrain labelled the prospect of allowing fans to attending a major sporting event as too risky.
Meanwhile, Vietnam – which is preparing for its first F1 race at the start of April – has suspended visa exemption privileges for citizens from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain.
The country had gone 22 days without any new confirmed cases, raising hopes its efforts to contain the spread had been successful despite sharing a border with China.
However, on March 2 a woman tested positive for the virus in Hanoi – the first victim inside the race’s host city – and there were a further 14 other cases directly related to that as of last weekend.
The respective developments across the countries hosting the first three rounds of the season has led to F1 facing questions over how responsible it is for races to take place.
That is magnified further by many major sporting events being affected, including Six Nations rugby matches in Europe, qualifying events for the Olympic Games and football’s FIFA World Cup in Asia, and the Indian Wells tennis tournament in the United States.
On Monday evening, F1 responded by outlining the “scientific approach” it has taken to “help assess and implement the appropriate steps needed to minimise risks and protect personnel”.
F1 said it is in “constant dialogue with promoters, governmental bodies and expert health authorities to ensure the safeguarding of everyone inside and around the sport”.
The championship says “dedicated teams of experts will be deployed at airports, transit points and at circuits to safeguard personnel, focused on the diagnosis, management and extraction of suspected cases”.
Regarding the events themselves, bespoke quarantine points are being installed by promoters for any suspected cases, while F1 will act on “daily advice from the official health authorities and the advice or measures each host promoter may enact”.
That suggests it is placing the fate of races in hands of the organisers and national bodies.
This year, F1’s share price on the NASDAQ stock market has already dropped from a January 22 high of $48.53 to to $29.96 as of Monday March 9.
Amid the concerns and the question marks, Ferrari has insisted its duty is to be the silver lining in a dark situation.
The team’s travel plans to Australia, Bahrain and Vietnam have been complicated by various restrictions in place, although fortunately personnel were able to head to Melbourne without being caught in the lockdown.
“At what is a difficult time for Italy and the world as a whole, as part of a global sport, it is our obligation to try and put a smile on people’s faces as they prepare to watch the first race of the season with the same sense of anticipation as ourselves,” said team boss Mattia Binotto.