The UK Government recently accepted St Helens RFC’s offer to use their Totally Wicked Stadium as a mass-vaccination centre (although with typically health-conscious BBC neutrality, they weren’t allowed to refer to its sponsored naming by an e-cig firm).
While it’s great news, I find it somewhat ironic that the people responsible for the existence of such an arena, the players of the club, won’t be hearing from the NHS for a while to come.
Despite the somewhat misleading title, I’m in no way advocating the prioritisation of fit, healthy athletes with a statistically insignificant risk to coronavirus over the vulnerable.
It’s not a case of Greg Inglis shoulder-charging Doris out of the queue, or John Bateman giving the biff to Betty.
I’m aware that the situation is different in Australia to allow for a more leisurely start to vaccination (although with billions being lost to border closures, there does seem to be some needless foot-dragging), but the situation will still apply as and when regulatory approval is granted.
There are already options for sporting bodies to bulk-buy directly from vaccine manufacturers instead of using government supplies, like the NHL suggested. Paying for batches, rather than drawing upon the state, investing in infrastructure that can later be used for public roll-out, would have benefits in the short and long-term immunisation effort.
But if such a commercial arrangement is not available, there are still good reasons for pushing athletes up the priority list.
If data out of Israel is to be believed, then receiving the vaccine should massively reduce the chances of transmission. This would alleviate the need for bi-weekly testing, with the money and resources being pumped back into the health service, as has been put forward by EPL managers.
But there also exists the reasoning of appreciation for what the players have done and continue to do.
I’ve written ad infinitum about how sport preserved what’s left of my sanity. Not above and beyond the prioritisation of everything else, but I’m sure there’s a small minority that agrees the preservation of sport should be strived for. The roll-out of vaccines to athletes and officials would go a long way to keeping the show on the road.
Once the over 70s and clinically vulnerable are jabbed, those in public-facing roles (teachers, supermarket workers, bus drivers, etc) are reportedly to be bumped up the list. Despite the existence of player bubbles of various porosity, sweating and breathing over dozens of other athletes for hours is about as interactive as you get.
There’s also a rather crude economic argument. Even behind closed doors, sports generates millions in economic revenue at a time when income streams have been decimated. From TV rights, advertising, merchandise sales and foreign investment, sport is a multi-billion-dollar industry beneficial to both health and wealth.
As much as I offer rational explanations for such an outcome, my interest is also driven by a fair degree of selfishness. The suspension of sport once again really would send me over the edge, but there are societal arguments supported by the majority that the vulnerable must be protected.
There are different arguments for different sports. NRL and AFL players could be freed of bubble life, rewarding them for their sacrifices in keeping the show on the road. But do Sheffield Shield players, engaging in the most socially distanced sport imaginable, need to be prioritised? These are difficult questions that exist in a morally ambiguous grey zone, that ultimately no one will be happy with.
There also exists the issue of vaccine refusal once they become readily available for the general population. The anti-vax movement seems to be relatively inconsequential, but one only needs to remember how Project Apollo was almost derailed by the flu vaccine hullabaloo with the Gold Coast Titans.
Should it be mandatory for players? My instincts would say no (just), but that is a decision entirely up to Australian governments and sports bodies, and I am well aware of the (so far successful) position taken against those who refuse vaccination.
There will be plenty of arguments to come in society as to how and when restrictions ease, who gets priority and why. But I for one would not be displeased if those that have kept me sane during these crazy times are rewarded and afforded every means to keep the show going on.