Fresh uncertainty as Varadkar suggests Irish Level 5 would mean no elite sport
Irish racing's prospect of continuing behind closed doors should extreme Level 5 lockdown restrictions be implemented has been thrown into some doubt following comments made by the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar on Thursday night.
Speaking on Today FM, in the context of whether or not the inter-county GAA championship would be stopped in the event of Level 5 being imposed, Varadkar said: "It would."
Varadkar appeared to be speaking specifically in relation to GAA, observing how it is not as easily compatible with Covid-19 protocols in the way that some other sports are.
"It is difficult for the GAA in particular because they are amateur athletes, they can't be bubbled and cocooned in the way that Premiership players can be or even provincial rugby players can be," he said.
However, it was subsequently reported that the Tanaiste's office confirmed there would be no elite sport at Level 5: "That is what the government plan says, the framework, at Level 5 there is no elite sport."
Racing is specifically mentioned as continuing behind closed doors in Levels 3 and 4 of the government's Living with Covid-19 roadmap.
It was expected it would not do so if Level 5 had to be imposed, but an October 4 letter from the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, on behalf of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which he chairs, recommended that there would be "an exemption for elite professional/elite/senior inter-county/horseracing behind closed doors".
The letter also advised a national escalation to Level 5, which government subsequently rejected. It has become a pertinent issue once more after it emerged that NPHET has again recommended Level 5 measures be implemented for a six-week period as the coronavirus numbers continue to increase, with 1,205 new cases and three Covid-19 related deaths reported on Thursday.
There is no scheduled cabinet for the coming days and reports suggest government has still to be convinced such drastic action is a viable solution.
The mention of racing in the NPHET letter on October 4 was a fillip for stakeholders, but Varadkar's comments confuse the matter somewhat. Brian Kavanagh, Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive, said on Friday he would be seeking clarity on the issue, but suggested that racing's record since its resumption on June 8 should stand it in good stead.
All club GAA was suspended recently following a series of social distancing breaches during post-match celebrations.
"This arose last night so we will be making inquiries," Kavanagh told the Racing Post on Friday. "We are in Level 3 at the moment and, while NPHET is advising Level 5, ultimately government has to make the decision.
"They made it last Monday week when the last recommendation was made not to heed that advice. It all comes down to what is safe to do. We've seen confirmation in the UK and in the north this week that, despite escalating to the highest levels, racing would continue, which was certainly good to see.
"We have followed government guidance throughout this process and will continue to do so."
Clearly, racing's status as a €2 billion industry rather than just a recreational sport may differentiate it from other pursuits, although the extent to which goal posts are moving is a concern.
"There is a track record built up since June 8," Kavanagh added.
"Racecourses are big open-air spaces with a lot of room, and there has been good adherence to all the protocols. It is non-contact, not a team sport, so it doesn't have those dynamics. So it is different. And obviously there is an animal welfare aspect to it. You are dealing with animals who have been trained to run.
"In other countries, racing never stopped. Even in the highest level of lockdown in Melbourne, racing continued, and it continued all the way through lockdown in Hong Kong, so there is a uniqueness about it."
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