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The three ways team sports will return to action in ireland

Vaccine, PEP and PrEp or elimination are only routes

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Prof Samuel McConkey

Prof Samuel McConkey

Prof Samuel McConkey

As the grim slow-reveal of a sport-less Irish summer continues, hope remains that some sporting action - even at recreational level - will commence in the short term.

According to a prominent medical expert, the news is better for golfers and single-handed sailors than it is for hurlers and footballers...

Conor McKeon: To what extent will sport in Ireland be affected by the expected easing of social restrictions over the coming weeks?

Professor Sam McConkey: It's possible that the first stage will allow us more travel. And some more meetings with people, but outside and spaced two metres.

And that will allow a lot of sport to start. You know those middle-aged men in lycra who run around the roads? They're all socially distancing and they're relatively harmless to anyone. Or cycling. Or singles tennis. Or golf. They're all socially distancing.

So soon, we could be living in a world where there is lots of sport possibly, where you can still conduct meaningful social distancing. That's how I see it evolving.

CMcK: What needs to happen before we can have team sports - contact sports - played at even a recreational level without spectators?

SMcC: There's three ways out of this. One is a vaccine that we all get and then it doesn't spread around any more and it's not a threat to us.

Two is the route that the Prime Minister of New Zealand went down - the route of elimination of Covid-19 from New Zealand. Closing off borders. Quarantining New Zealand citizens for two weeks after they enter the country. My prediction is they're going to be up playing rugby in July or August.

The third way is, it's quite possible that we will have a coronavirus PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) and that will control it in the same way HIV is under control.

So if you have any of those three situations that worked completely, then you could just go back to normal. And you could forget about social distancing. And all sport could come back.

CMcK: What advice would you give to the various sporting governing bodies in Ireland?

SMcC: My view is that the leaders of each sport are going to have to do some very rapid contingency planning and continuity planning.

They probably need some players' representative organisations, some of the referees, some of the managers, a health and safety occupational doctor, perhaps a public health doctor...get them all together and do some serious work.

CMcK: As the relaxation of social distancing starts, how can we get back in some shape or form in our sport?

SMcC: As our government releases restrictions, sporting organisations are ready with a detailed plan about how to do sport, but perhaps in some modified or restricted manner.

I see that things like tennis, single-handed sailing, golf, fishing, cycling and running are all likely to start fairly quickly.

Whereas things like rugby, I just can't see any way to do it without touching people fairly aggressively.

So for sports like rugby, I'd come back to those three conditions: a vaccine, a PEP and PrEP or elimination.

CMcK: Effectively then, Ireland's biggest participative teams sports; soccer, rugby and gaelic games are on ice until coronavirus is eliminated?

SMcC: If we didn't quite achieve elimination, but our number of new cases was tiny - like five.

If we were in a near elimination stage, that might work. Especially if those cases were rapidly detected.

Maybe if it was very low, you might be able to start playing games again at low risk.

So say there's approximately ten cases a day and they're all in north Dublin and it's all known where they are, then maybe the good folk in Limerick could start to play their rugby down in Limerick.

CMcK: Current figures suggest that's still a long way off?

SMcC: I'm quite optimistic. The number of cases has been dropping rapidly.

The numbers you see on television are a bit behind because they're only testing some samples that were taken a week earlier.

And the number of new cases in the community in Ireland has dropped dramatically and effectively. A lot of the new cases are in nursing homes now.

The number of people entering intensive care is decreasing. I know the number of deaths is still high, but this can take four to six weeks from infection to death. It doesn't kill quickly.

Even if it was contained, almost completely - if it was near elimination - and if it was geographically localised to say, nursing homes in North Dublin, then potentially the rugby players in Cork and Kerry could go and do their bit.

CMcK: So in your opinion, will we see competitive contact sport in this country again in 2020?

SMcC: It's still very hard to know. The timing of this is very difficult to predict. I'm happy to outline the steps and I have a reasonably clear idea of where this will go.

But as for when and the details and the timing, I'd hate to be drawn on that. Because I'll definitely be wrong.

Unfortunately, I don't see this world that we're going into will be the same as the one we came from.

And with regard to sport, there will be a lot more cyclists, tennis players, singled-handed sailors and golfers than there used to be.

Samuel McConkey is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland