The GAA has decided that any immediate return to training by intercounty teams would be "irresponsible" but the matter will be reconsidered in a fortnight's time.
This decision emerged after Monday evening's remote meeting of the association's Covid advisory group – which features a number of senior medical professionals including infectious disease expert Professor Mary Horgan, who is also a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) – and was communicated to the counties in a letter from association DG Tom Ryan and President John Horan on Monday night.
It was the group’s first meeting since November and whereas there had been some hopes that a resumption of intercounty training by the end of February might be considered and by extension a start to this year’s national league a month later, the circumstances for a return weren’t felt to be in place, although the letter states that the commencement of competitions in the month of March remains a possibility.
“It was the view of the group,” runs Ryan’s letter, “that the incidence of the virus in the community remains at a level where it would be irresponsible for the GAA to permit a return to collective training at this moment in time.
“However, the group did welcome the significant and ongoing reduction in case numbers over the course of the last number of weeks and it was agreed to continue to monitor case numbers and community transmission rates before reconvening on the week commencing February 15th to further consider the matter.”
This season was originally meant to begin mid-January but had been suspended in light of the health crisis and with the Government’s Level 5 restrictions recently extended until March 5th, it had been thought unlikely that there would be any activities until at least then.
That was despite the fact that both training and matches at elite levels are allowed under Level 5 but the GAA had been cautious about returning while cases of infection remained so high and schools had yet to open.
The mood of the group meeting is believed to have been cautious, understandably in light of the terrible figures reported in January with record cases and more than 1,000 deaths as well as unprecedented pressure on the hospitals and their ICUs.
There is also the challenge of the more infectious strains of Covid – both more transmissible as well as having a higher viral load – but this hasn’t impacted on the GAA’s thinking to date, as contacts between the association and rugby and soccer authorities have indicated that the other team sports aren’t reporting any greater difficulties as a result.
Last year the advisory group was instrumental in encouraging a return to play during the summer so its more sober tone on Monday has dictated ongoing caution and a reluctance to commit to specific dates, as outlined by Ryan.
“As the situation with the virus remains fluid, it is unfortunately impossible for the association to put definitive dates in place for when intercounty training or games may resume. However there are positive indications in terms of the reduction of case numbers and the continued roll out of the Covid vaccine, and as such, the commencement of competitions in the month of March is a definite possibility.
“In that context we remain committed to providing at least a four-week window for teams between the return of collective training and the commencement of competitive games, remain committed to running all of the various competitions that were outlined in the original Master Fixture plan published last December.”
It was also advised that “all pitches and gyms must remain closed for the time being”.
Ryan is also keen to reassure counties that club fixtures, which will be impinged on as the All-Irelands are certain to stretch beyond their scheduled July dates, would be facilitated as soon as possible. Under Government restrictions, club activity is not permitted beyond Level 2.
“. . . despite this necessary delay in getting the intercounty season up and running, we remain committed to ensuring a healthy portion of the fixture calendar is allocated to our clubs so that they can return to training and competition as soon as Government restrictions permit.
“We are also conscious that outstanding club games from 2020 and the remaining games in the 2020 Minor and under-20 inter county competitions need to be factored into the equation in this context.”
It has also been confirmed that the draws for this year’s championships have been postponed. Originally intended to take place next week, spread over a number of days, the decision to defer was taken because of the current uncertainty over the intercounty schedules for this year.
A Croke Park source said that to proceed with the draws might have “confused the message” to counties at a time when a return to training has yet to be confirmed let alone the finalised fixtures calendar for 2021.
Last year the draw had already been made by the time that the first national lockdown was announced. It wasn’t until the end of June that provisional dates for the championship were announced and October before the intercounty season actually began.