Seeking ‘answers’ from the HSE over a particular case should always be framed in the context of a pandemic and all they have to do in terms of safeguarding public health and crisis management. And over the last 14-and-a-half months there has been plenty to do on that front.
stablishing clarity on the criteria for setting out the difference between close and casual contacts in a sporting context is scarcely top of their list, as sport is, essentially, a voluntary pursuit for most without the necessity attached to the workplace or the home.
So, you always suspect the HSE have a bit more to be doing than instantly fronting up to anger in GAA circles over the whys and hows of a particular incident.
But in the case of the two Clare hurlers being identified as close contacts of two Wexford players, opponents in last Sunday week’s Allianz Division 1B league match in Ennis, some clarity would be enlightening, not only to address Clare manager Brian Lohan’s frustration as to how they were identified and the imposition they now face in their lives as they self-isolate but also the broader context for contact sport.
The back and forth between Clare and Wexford over the last number of days has been notable, including Lohan’s contention, after Sunday’s win for the Banner County over Laois, that the two Clare players were ‘nominated’ by the Wexford players in question, something that has been rejected out of hand by Wexford chairman Micheál Martin in person and through a board statement.
For their part, the GAA, through their director of club, games and player welfare Fergal McGill, who is the lead official on these matters, supported the view that the assessment of the two Clare players as close contacts ultimately came from HSE MidWest.
The Royal College of Surgeons head of the department of international health and tropical medicine, Professor Sam McConkey also outlined, on RTÉ, how “the people who have Covid have very little role in making a decision about who is a close contact”.
“It’s the contact-tracing experts from the HSE on the telephone who do that.
“Ultimately the local department of public health decide who is a close and who is a casual contact,” he added.
The ‘who’ and the ‘how’ may continue to play out between the two counties but the ‘why’ is something that should concern the wider GAA public and everyone connected to team sport.
Why would one particular public health unit in the country make such a determination when so many others in the country haven’t thus far in similar situations?
What was the criteria established to make an ultimate determination? Was the contact in these cases particularly close? Did it last for longer than normal?
As stated at the outset, public health officials may not be moved to get into such specifics but it would be insightful nonetheless.
In some cases around the country, contact tracers have been known to watch re-runs of games to establish what level of contact there has been between rival players.
That may have been the case here. But on-field transmission, not just in Gaelic games but in all sports, has been so low around the world as to be almost negligible which makes the identity of two Clare players in this scenario all the more surprising. It would seem that different public health officials involved in contact tracing abide by different criteria.
Last year Offaly had to forfeit their Christy Ring Cup match with Kildare after 27 of their squad were deemed to have been close contacts of one squad member who had tested positive for Covid.
At the time Offaly stressed that they had followed all Covid guidelines issued by the GAA in consultation with public health which meant separate travel to and from training, no indoor activity and no use of dressing-rooms.
But still, a determination came that almost the entire squad were close contacts even though the player who had tested positive hadn’t trained with them for a week before the positive case was confirmed.
The consensus at the time was that if such determinations were to be repeated there would be much more disruption to games, not just at
inter-county level but also club level when it resumed.
As it is, competitive club activity still remains off the road since that Offaly case manifested last autumn.
But now the Clare cases will set alarm bells ringing. What if all contact tracers adopt the same approach and deem players who have tested positive to have a close-contact reach that incorporates their direct opponents on a particular day.
Wexford’s use of the dressing-room in Ennis has also placed a number of their players in the ‘close contact’ bracket and the county must wait until later in the week to see if there is clearance for them to play Kilkenny in the postponed league game scheduled for Nowlan Park last Sunday.
The one possible upside to all of this is if the Clare hurlers in question remain Covid negative it will help to reinforce the view, without ever being certain of it, around such low levels of on-field transmission.