Victoria has clocked up 15 straight days without a new locally acquired case of COVID-19, while one person in hotel quarantine has tested positive in the last 24 hours.
It is not clear whether positive test results from two Australian Open players and a support person on Wednesday have been reclassified as viral shedding. Their cases were expected to be included in Thursday’s official figures.
Police Minister Lisa Neville said on Wednesday morning that three people associated with the grand slam had tested positive for COVID-19, but one player was strongly suspected of being a case of viral shedding.
Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic has hit back at criticism of his letter to Australian Open chief Craig Tiley in which he suggested easing of quarantine restrictions, saying his good intentions were “misconstrued”.
Djokovic said he made a series of requests rather than demands
He said he “genuinely” cared about other players
The world number one said he had earned his privileges the hard way
As many as 72 players are confined to their hotel rooms for 14 days and unable to train for the February 8-21 Australian Open after passengers on three charter flights carrying them to Melbourne tested positive for coronavirus.
Tiley confirmed they were suggestions and not demands.
“My good intentions for my fellow competitors in Melbourne have been misconstrued as being selfish, difficult and ungrateful,” the Serbian, who is isolating in Adelaide along with other top players, said in a lengthy statement.
“This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Tennis coach Daniel Vallverdu told Reuters that players in hard quarantine should get preferential treatment from organisers such as prime practice times and matches scheduled in the cooler hours of the day.
Djokovic, who last year quit as the ATP Players Council chief to launch a breakaway players body, won a record eighth Australian Open title in Melbourne in 2020.
Djokovic said he “genuinely” cared about fellow players.
“I’ve earned my privileges the hard way … it is very difficult for me to be a mere onlooker knowing how much every help, gesture, and good word mattered to me when I was small and insignificant in the world pecking order,” he said.
“Hence, I use my position of privilege to be of service as much as I can where and when needed.”
Djokovic also expressed gratitude towards organisers TA, the Australian Government and the citizens to allow the players to compete amid the pandemic.
“Things in the media escalated and there was a general impression that the players, including myself, are ungrateful, weak and selfish because of their unpleasant feelings in quarantine,” he added.
“I am very sorry that it has come to that because I do know how grateful many are. We all came to Australia to compete. Not being able to train and prepare before the tournament starts is really not easy.
“None of us ever questioned 14 days of quarantine despite what is being said by media outlets.”
There are no active coronavirus cases among tennis players in hotel quarantine ahead of the Australian Open, according to tournament director Craig Tiley.
Six active coronavirus cases are linked to arrivals for the tournament
Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut has apologised for comparing hotel quarantine to jail
Lead-in events could be adjusted to allow for players who were unable to train
Yesterday, the Department of Health and Human Services said two people who had tested positive had been reclassified as cases of viral shedding.
Mr Tiley said 3,200 tests were conducted on people who flew into Melbourne to be involved in the Australian Open in some capacity, and six of those people were considered active cases.
“We’re in our sixth day and so far our numbers have been extremely low and if they are active cases they go straight to the medi-hotel,” he said.
Paramedics this morning responded to a medical emergency at the View Hotel, where many tennis players have been quarantined.
Ambulance Victoria said one person was taken to hospital in a stable condition, but did not reveal whether the person was connected to the tennis.
Tennis Australia has devoted considerable time to dealing with a vocal minority of players who have continued to complain about conditions in hotel quarantine.
Spanish player Roberto Bautista Agut issued an apology after he likened conditions in quarantine to being in jail, in a video he said was released without his consent.
In the video, Bautista Agut was critical of the Victorian Government, saying the quarantine arrangements were “a complete disaster”.
He later issued a statement saying it was a private conversation taken out of context and released to the media without his knowledge.
Russian player Yulia Putintseva drew criticism yesterday for an Instagram post in which she was seen holding a protest sign in her hotel room.
Putintseva later continued to complain about cleanliness standards, posting videos of mice in her hotel room.
Mr Tiley said Tennis Australia had to remind players that their complaints may not be well received in Melbourne.
“We’re doing the best we can to ask the players to be respectful of the Victorian community, who’ve been through a really tough time over four months of a lockdown, and paid significant prices in loss of life and also in jobs,” he said.
“It’s just one of those environments that we have to every single day talk to the players and ask them to respect that position.
“I believe the majority of them are, it’s just a select few that are not there yet.”
British player Johanna Konta spoke up during a conference call with hundreds of players earlier this week, urging them to be mindful of local sentiment and keep their complaints private.
She told Channel Nine that emotions were running high during the first few days of quarantine, and players were simply anxious about how they would perform after two weeks in a hotel room.
“A big part of that frustration for these players will be how well will they be able to perform and I think that just comes along with being a professional athlete and sometimes rationale doesn’t come into it,” she said.
“The reason we are here is to put on a show for the people of Australia, the people of Melbourne, and also the world stage.”
Tennis Australia is yet to reveal whether allowances will be made in its schedule for the 72 players in hard quarantine, but Mr Tiley hinted that could be a possibility.
“I think how we can adjust is what happens in the lead-in events, how many lead-in events we have and when we start and what the schedule is for those players who need more time,” he said.
“I’m aware of these figures and I wanted to share them with you because there’s been a lot of debate about how many people we have in the Australian Open who are positive,” she said. “This morning we became aware of three more positives.”
The three additional cases will be included in Thursday’s official figures.
Ms Neville said two cases are players, including one who is strongly suspected of shedding the virus and is already in lockdown because they arrived on a flight with another positive case.
The second player and their support person who returned positive swabs will not be allowed outside their hotel rooms while the Department of Health and Human Services reviews their test results to determine whether they are also shedding the virus.
“In the meantime though, the player and the support person … will not be training until we have final confirmation they are either shedding [the virus] or that they are positive,” Ms Neville said.
“If they are positive those two will go into the health hotel and the two bubble people will be considered close contacts and will be in lockdown for the 14 days.”
Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Wednesday morning the bill for the quarantine program is expected to top $40 million and will be partially paid by the Victorian government.
That was strongly disputed by Ms Neville.
“I want to be really clear about this,” she said, “hotel quarantine for the Australian Open is fully funded by Tennis Australia, I’ve triple confirmed that again today.
“I think you know we are asking, for example, Australians returning [home] to contribute to their hotel quarantining costs … so it is appropriate that Tennis Australia similarly do that.”
In a health department update just before 5pm, Professor Sutton specified that the new cases “involve two players”.
But Mr Tiley appeared to dispute this, stating “none of them are players”. He suggested some players had cases of viral shedding, as opposed to being actively infectious.
Players including Roberto Bautista Agut and Yulia Putintseva compared life in lockdown to prison, with the latter saying: “In jail, at least you can breathe fresh air two times a day.” Bautista Agut later issued an apology, labelling Australia’s efforts to limit the spread of the virus as “admirable”.
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David Estcourt is a court and general news reporter at The Age.
Nationals backbencher Matt Canavan has accused Beijing of having “something to hide” after Chinese medics admitted they knew how dangerous COVID-19 was but were silenced by the government.
British network ITV has secretly filmed senior medics who witnessed some of the first cases in Wuhan and claimed they knew the virus could be transmitted from human to human but were told not to speak out.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed on January 14 there was evidence of “limited” transmission between humans.
But the medics – speaking on ITV’s Outbreak: The Virus That Shook The World – claimed there was no doubt the deadly virus could be passed between people in December.
Coalition Senator Matt Canavan said the revelations vindicated the government’s demand for transparency from Beijing.
“That’s why the federal government’s always been consistent in calling for a proper, transparent inquiry (on the origins of COVID-19),” he told Today.
“The question has to be asked: If China has nothing to hide here, why they are going to these sort of lengths to hide things?”
A WHO investigation team is in Wuhan but was initially barred from entering, with Beijing citing visa issues.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack last week insisted the probe would “get the answers it needs” despite fears China would attempt to railroad the probe.
But Mr Canavan has accused Beijing of dragging its feet more than a year after the first cases were detected.
“We have really no more information about where this came from, what happened in Wuhan, and the international investigators themselves have been denied access to Wuhan,” he said.
“You do have to wonder, the more people try to hide something, the more it probably is they have something to hide.”
Azarenka, who won the women’s title at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, acknowledged being in a 14-day quarantine was “very tough to accept in terms of all the work that everyone has been putting in during their off-season”.
But the former women’s world number one said all players needed to show patience and be respectful of what the Victorian community had gone through during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would like to ask all my colleagues for cooperation, understanding and empathy for the local community that has been going through a lot of very demanding restrictions that they did not choose, but were forced to follow,” Azarenka tweeted.
“I would like to ask to be sensitive as well to the people who have lost their jobs and loved ones during this horrible time for all of us around the world.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley replied to Azarenka’s tweet, thanking her for her support and saying her “words are much appreciated”.
“It means a lot to us,” Tiley tweeted.
Azarenka’s stance is at odds with men’s world number 13 Bautista Agut, who expressed his frustration with the player lockdown.
“It’s the same [as being in prison], but with WiFi,” he said in an interview with Israeli broadcaster Sport5.
“These people has [sic] no idea about tennis, about practice courts, has no idea about anything so it’s a complete disaster.”
But Czech Barbora Strycova, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2019, supported the strict health protocols players were faced with during their quarantine period.
“I’m exercising twice a day, reading some books, being on social (media) and watching TV,” she told SEN Breakfast.
“I can’t really complain. I really have to go through it and try to be as positive as I can be.”
Georgian tennis player Oksana Kalashnikova is among those players confined to a hotel room and unable to practise for two weeks.
Speaking to ABC News Breakfast, Kalashnikova acknowledged other players who were able to train had an advantage over those like her in hard isolation.
“Of course we are not in the winning position in quarantine and obviously the other players will have an advantage because we can’t really have the same amount of hours of practice,” she said.
Along with the competitive disadvantage her relative lack of preparation poses, she said she is concerned about the possibility that her changed routine could also make her more prone to injury once she recommences her typical training load.
“For any human being, if you are not doing the same amount of workout you can’t just go in and jump in and do the same amount of hours [of training afterwards],” she said.
“Personally, talking about myself, I am just going to raise my hours slowly just to go with how my body feels [not to] overload it in the first days.”
Kalshnikova said the players knew they’d be faced with at least mild quarantine measures, and that she was happy to follow the rules and deal with the situation in front of her now.
But she does believe more time to prepare for the open may have been helpful to the players.
Still, she is trying to make the best of the situation by doing workouts to stay physically active in her room.
Psychological resilience may be the key to success
Former player and Kooyong Classic tournament director Peter Johnston said staying physically active and healthy would be crucial to the Australian Open success of the players in hard isolation.
But he said the players who were able to show psychological resilience and embrace training in these restrictive conditions would also be the ones who ultimately had the most success on the court.
“The physical aspect has to be managed, as we’ve talked about, but it’s really the one whose been able to keep everything together in their own mind and stay positive that will have the best results,” he said.
He said players should be staying “mentally up” by keeping communication with people on the outside, as well as doing as much exercise as they can.
But he said getting that physical training for a sport like tennis would be a challenge in the confined space of a hotel room.
“Well it’s very restrictive in a sport like tennis, as you can see from what lengths they are going to, to actually try and find some way to try and maintain their touch and their fitness,” he said.
“I think diet is also another massive issue and they need to have as much available to them as they normally would have.”
There’s also the climate related adjustment for players to consider, having left colder climate for air-conditioned hotel rooms, away from the Melbourne summer weather .
“I’d be really hoping for a window that opens because you need to experience the fresh air. The conditions in Australia are so much more extreme than players who come from say, the northern hemisphere,” he said.
He said it would be difficult for those competing against players who had better preparations.
But he hoped the nine days between the end of the quarantine period and the start of the tournament would give them a chance to bridge that gap in preparation.
“I think the good news is there’s a week’s break after this quarantine period is over and in that time there’s a lot of playing opportunities,” he said.
“It’s not perfect but I think that does give players the chance to have the best possible preparation as they can manage before the Australian Open starts.
Adjusting to a difficult situation
Former Australian doubles champion Todd Woodbridge agreed that mental preparation would be key for players emerging from hard isolation into the tournament.
“They are not going to be perfect, but they are going to have to do everything they can,” he said.
“I think Tennis Australia is looking at getting bikes into their rooms so they can do their cardio work-outs, and small weights and they’ll all already have programs that they would’ve been doing in that space anyway.
“So it’s about who mentally is prepared to do all those things.”
Sitak is one player who is mentally adjusting to the situation.
He says his preparation was not completely upended by quarantine, and takes the perspective that there is not much else he can do in the circumstances he finds himself in.
“Everything that I did in the off-season … I had six very good weeks of training, it’s not completely ruined but it’s not the same now,” Sitak said.
“We’re going to have to ease into it a little bit because it’s not easy to be locked down for 14 days. But what can you do with the circumstances?”
The note said charges would proceed only for people classified as tier three, who demonstrated “repeated, deliberate or continuing breaches of the Chief Health Officer’s directions”, or those infected with COVID-19 who refused to isolate.
However, Mr Nugent said police policy had not changed and officers would continue to pursue outstanding fines in court as they would other serious offences.
“A guide was prepared for prosecutors and police with respect to prosecuting fines. In hindsight, that document was poorly worded and doesn’t appropriately articulate the process for fines and warnings in relation to the Chief Health Officer directions,” he said.
“We will prosecute all those that should be prosecuted. It’s certainly not an area that we have policed in the past … in that context, those fines went to people who blatantly and deliberately breached CHO directions and put others at risk. So we will proceed with those as we would with other serious offences.”
Mr Nugent denied there had been any change to the policy position, or that less priority was placed on pursuing COVID-related fines. “There is no policy shift whatsoever in terms of our approach to those fines and the importance of those fines.”
New advice is now being drafted, he said. About 40,000 fines have been issued during the pandemic and about 3000 have been paid. Another 5700 people who were fined have “accepted guilt” and established a payment plan, Mr Nugent said.
About 2400 fines have proceeded to court. Mr Nugent could not say how many of the 40,000 fines had been withdrawn.
People were fined $200 for not wearing face masks in public and up to $1652 for most stay-at-home order breaches. Fines of $4957 applied for unlawful gatherings and COVID-positive people who failed to self-isolate.
Premier Daniel Andrews distanced himself from the police advice after it was reported on Monday, saying it was not a government decision.
“Victoria Police are completely independent of the government, that’s not a decision the government’s made, that is a decision the Chief Commissioner has made,” he said. “The exact details of those decisions, why they’ve done what they’ve done … you’d have to speak to the Chief Commissioner about that.”
In October Mr Andrews said fines must be paid, as he warned: “We will come after you if you don’t.”
Fines issued for breaches of the Chief Health Officer’s directions are reviewed by police. A fine recipient can also request a second review by Victoria Police.
If the fine proceeds, the person has 28 days to pay and if they do not, they receive a reminder and final notice. If they still do not pay, it is referred to Fines Victoria, a warrant is issued and it proceeds to the Sherriff’s Office.
People can also elect to have their matter heard by a court, in which case the informant – the officer who issued the fine – prepares a brief of evidence and, if approved, a summons is issued and the matter will proceed to court.
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Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.