Golf clubs could reopen ‘relatively safely,’ says Prof Sam McConkey

McConkey says ideally Ireland should follow the ‘bubble’ strategy pursued by New Zealand

Reopening golf clubs in Ireland before a coronavirus vaccine is found can be done "relatively safely," a leading medical expert has said.

“Golf is played outside in the open air, and almost always two metres away from other players,” Professor Sam McConkey, head of the Royal College of Surgeons’ department of international health and tropical medicine, told The Irish Times.

“So my opinion is that playing golf, even two or four players from different houses together, could be done relatively safely if sick people and their contacts stay away, people come dressed and do not use changing rooms, gyms or the clubhouse facilities. A national guidance plan is the best way forward, not each club deciding itself.”

In a joint statement on March 24th, the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union recommended that "all golf clubs, practice facilities and courses across the island close with immediate effect."


The government’s Covid-19 restrictions will remain in place until at least the May bank holiday weekend, with access to sporting clubs significantly down the list of priorities when easing of restrictions does occur.

However, Prof McConkey believes specific sports like single-handed sailing and horse racing can return “with a two-metre social distancing rule in place very soon”.

Nothing resembling a timeline currently exists for spectators returning to stadiums. According to Prof McConkey, whenever it happens they would need to be on seats two metres apart and “all wearing masks”.

“Though there is still some risk from objects like door handles and hand rails. To minimise this transmission, one could restrict attendance to those less than 20 or [up to]50 years of age, depending on what level of risk you are willing to take.”

The best conditions, he stated, for sport to return in 2020 is to "imitate" New Zealand's strict lockdown. Both New Zealand and Australia have closed their borders to foreigners and imposed 14-day quarantine on returning residents.

“I suspect New Zealand rugby will be back up in a few weeks’ time,” said Prof McConkey. “They are down to 10 to 15 cases per day and only [nine] deaths. They have been doing really, really well.

“Maybe in three to four weeks’ time they can be down to zero cases from community transmission and that means the only cases they would have are from people bringing it into the country. You will always have that issue from incoming citizens in the 14-day quarantine. But they are sealed off and not spreading it around.”

Horrible outbreak

Media reports from New Zealand cautiously suggest a return to domestic rugby in July with preliminary talk of Argentina, the All Blacks and Springbok squads isolating in one Australian city in order to play The Rugby Championship.

“International matches with players from SARS CoV 2 infected areas might be harder to organise,” said Prof McConkey.

“I’m optimistic New Zealand will succeed,” Prof McConkey continued.

“The Chinese have succeeded. Wuhan had a horrible outbreak, thousands of people got Covid-19, but they are now back going to cafes and restaurants in very normal social activity. That’s when sport can return to normal in our own country.

“If everyone listened to me I’d be going: ‘let’s copy the New Zealand approach’. My suggestion is a bubble of seven million people on the island of Ireland.

"The reason we cannot be as stringent as New Zealand is the good people of Northern Ireland do not agree with each other, they have not agreed with each other for 100 years and they do not agree with us. So there is a political problem.

"For many, many decades smarter people than you and I have failed on that one. There have been Nobel prizes won and lost by people trying to solve that problem, and still they are not agreeing with each other. Robin Swann and Michelle O'Neill are still fighting [over British army assistance in NI] despite being in the same cabinet.

“That’s why we are not doing what New Zealand are doing.

"The other possibility that I am a bit hopeful about is the other nearby island, Great Britain – which is really suffering, with many people dying, Prince Charles got it, Boris Johnson got it, the ICUs are overwhelmed and they are scrambling with these Nightingale hospitals – might decide they need to follow New Zealand and Australia, as they seem successful. So do Macao, Taiwan, South Korea; lots of liberal democratic countries in Asia are succeeding with this elimination strategy.

“Boris might flip and decide the New Zealanders were right all along. The North would follow London and we can agree to go along with that so we could have our own little bubble on this island.

“I think that is a possible future. The British are independently-minded so they might not mind being in a little bubble for a couple of years, until a vaccine is found. And if we are in a small little bubble we can begin to do our sports.”

This idea is at odds with Sports Illustrated’s “bubble bursting” article, which casts doubt over US sporting bodies ability to pull off the monumental logistical challenge of gathering multiple teams in one secure area.

“You have to have a proper bubble, not a pretend bubble. There is no contact from people outside to people inside the bubble, that’s the whole definition of what a bubble is; it has a sealed membrane around it. A bubble has a skin. What is being described is a balloon that has gone pop.

“Sport is possible to restart safely in the future with detailed planning, risk management and high levels of adherence.”