Australia’s lockdown obsession makes it unthinkable for Ashes to go ahead

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For an illustration of Australia’s zero-COVID doom-loop, take the father handcuffed in a Sydney park recently with his infant daughter in his lap, as police arrested him for not wearing a mask. Or the returning Olympians forced to quarantine for almost a month despite being double-jabbed and tested daily while in Tokyo. Or the dire warning for fans attending an AFL match in Adelaide “not to touch that ball” for fear of catching the virus.

A country once celebrated for its subversive larrikin spirit has been paralysed for 20 months by the fantasy that it can insulate itself indefinitely from a global pandemic. Melbourne is about to become the most locked-down city on Earth, while a grieving mother from Queensland last month found herself trapped in NSW by state border closures after attending her son’s funeral.

These are policies of extreme cruelty dressed up as virtuous protections of public health. And yet Australia, so cowed by COWED-19 that it will sanction government overreach into every sphere of society, is still desperate to host an Ashes series in 10 weeks’ time.

It is a contradiction rooted in cynical political calculation. Prime Minister Scott Morrison must face a federal election before next May, and by saving the Ashes, an occasion central to overseas prestige, he can create the illusion that his nation is once again ready to welcome the world. The reality is glaringly different: Queensland, due to host the first Test at the Gabba in December, is still imposing statewide lockdowns for single-figure caseloads. Western Australia, venue for the fifth and final Test, is so stricken by COVID terror that it has even asked its citizens to observe social distancing while fleeing bushfires.

The consequences of such panic for England’s cricketers will be stark. At the very least, the touring arrangements this winter are likely to mandate hard quarantine and a ban on any social interaction beyond their bubble for the two-month series.

According to Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon, this is a “small price to pay”. But you can understand why England players, worn down by isolation fatigue and a Sri Lanka welcome party that involved being hosed down with disinfectant by men in HAZMAT suits, are already at breaking point. It is no wonder that all-format players such as Jos Buttler, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes are withholding judgment until learning whether their families can attend.

England captain Joe Root, left, and Australia’s captain Tim Paine pose with the Ashes urn before the first Test in 2019.Credit:AP

Australia’s fanaticism about biosecurity is inimical to hosting global sport. Cycling’s Tour Down Under has been called off only this week, while Formula One’s traditional curtain-raiser in Melbourne could yet be cancelled for the third straight season. This year’s Australian Open took place only because of an absurd two-tier quarantine system that ensured luxury for the superstars and lock-up for the rank-and-file. One justification for salvaging the Ashes amid these restrictions is to give Morrison, under mounting criticism for the country’s dismal vaccination rate, a timely electoral boost. But the England team deserve better than to be pawns in a self-serving political game.

As recently as Christmas 2019, Australia was looking to entice UK visitors through Kylie Minogue’s Matesong, which produced the immortal couplet: “Negotiating trade deals is a shocker / But look, there’s a quokka!” Ever since, the pandemic has exposed a grimly isolationist streak in the national psyche, with one Sydney academic lamenting Australia’s reinvention as the “hermit kingdom of the South Pacific”.

For nearly two years, the entire population, contrary to all norms of international law, has been banned from leaving.

By the same token, caps on arrivals are so ludicrously low that tens of thousands of expatriates – including Australians wanting to return from India being threatened with five years’ jail – have been demonised for wanting to come back. Australia’s lockdown obsessives will not like to hear it, but there are ways of living with COVID that do not require this degree of punishment or control. This summer, England players have performed to full houses, with many of the infernal bubble protocols finally peeled back despite case numbers exceeding 35,000 a day.

Why would they willingly go back in time to Australia, where borders are slammed shut and basic freedoms can still be curtailed on the whim of state premiers drunk on their own power? Common sense dictates that this Ashes series should be delayed 12 months.

The unyielding harshness of Australia’s COVID strategy means that there is too great a risk of England sending a weakened team, an outcome that would do untold damage to the Ashes brand.

There is only so long that any athlete can be asked to tolerate incarceration and surveillance in the pursuit of sporting glory.

England’s cricketers have already shouldered their fair share of the burden of COVID chaos.

They should not now be expected to pay the price for Australia’s reluctance to rejoin the rest of the world.

Oliver Brown is the London Telegraph’s chief sports writer.

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