I was wrong about The Sunday Game the other night. The re-run they featured of the 2017 final might have been one to avoid – I certainly couldn’t face its bittersweet pain – but John Horan’s appearance on the show was of some interest.
What the GAA President had to say about the likely timeframe for a return to action after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed was blunt and to the point. But it needed to be.
He skewered an inconsistency in the the government’s roadmap for reopening society and business, where it talks about team sports resuming in Phase 4 (i.e. from 10th July) but only where the numbers of supporters are limited and where “social distancing can be maintained.”
As the Na Fianna club man pointed out, that is a nonsense. He said:
If social distancing is a priority to deal with this pandemic, I don’t know how we can play a contact sport. That is what Gaelic Games is. It is a contact sport.
He’s right, you know. While in theory you could imagine punters keeping well apart from each other as they look on from the stands you couldn’t expect to see any physical distancing protocols being obeyed in the heat of battle down on the pitch. And, of course, the problem is that if everyone isn’t observing the rules on keeping clear of each other the risks of transmitting the virus increase sharply.
The GAA President made it clear that the safety of members of the Association would have to be put first in any decision on resuming on-field action. Nobody’s health will be put at risk, he stressed, and so no training or matches would be restarting until it was safe to do so.
That begs the question – when will the current strictures on social distancing and all the rest be relaxed? The easy answer is that this won’t happen any time soon, not least given the dangers of a second wave of Covid infections hitting as the current restrictions on work and movement are gradually eased.
Health Minister Simon Harris said last month that social distancing will most likely to have to be maintained until a vaccine is available. When might this be? No earlier than mid-2021, according to this BBC report. Possibly never, says this piece in the Daily Telegraph. Even if a vaccine is discovered, it could be years before it becomes widely available on a global basis, as this piece in the New York Times explains.
So, let’s consider a scenario where the pandemic rumbles on for several more months, maybe even for a few years. Precautionary measures like wearing face masks in public, frequent hand-washing, the avoidance of congregating in large groups and, yes, continuing to observe social distancing, would all have to remain as everyday features of life.
This view of what might lie ahead is, of course, no more than what we’re living with now extended into the future, perhaps the far future. While this new normal persists – including social distancing – it’s one that, according to the GAA President, provides no basis for a safe resumption of GAA matches.
John Horan stated on The Sunday Game that he wasn’t averse to a 2020 Championship getting going late this year and spilling over into the early months of 2021. But he stressed that if a 2020 Championship is to be played at all, it’ll have to at least make a start this year. Otherwise there’ll be no option but to abandon this year’s Championship altogether.
Delayed GAA Championships aren’t unprecedented, although you have to go back nearly a century to encounter the most recent one that wasn’t finished in the same calendar year that it started. Only once since the GAA was founded, however, was there a year in which no Championship was played at all.
That year was 1888. But that’s another story, one I’ll come back to next time with some more details on Championships delayed and unfinished to help put the current hiatus into some proper historical context.