This Sunday, Australia starts daylight saving. Or some of Australia. New South Wales and Victoria will join Tasmania in setting east-coast clocks forward. Queensland on the same coast will stubbornly stay on standard time for reasons lost in the dim mists of history. Formerly half an hour behind that lot, South Australia will skip half an hour ahead of Queensland. The Northern Territory will not, dropping from 30 to 90 minutes behind Sydney. Western Australia will go from two hours behind the east to three. Then there’s the small town of Eucla halfway between Adelaide and Perth, which runs on Australian Central Western Standard Time – 8 hours and 45 minutes ahead of Greenwich.
If you think that is confusing, try Australian states and Covid regulations. Since last year the eight provincial governments across the country have constantly shifted restrictions and enforcement about travel and quarantine as outbreaks are suppressed in one place or flare up in another. Parochialism and public health are each factors. A federal vaccine program defined mostly by its absence has maintained that necessity. Where politicians elsewhere speak in blasé style about living with the virus, much of Australia still has the luxury of living without it.
Which makes the prospect of a nationwide Ashes tour daunting for the England players and staff weighing it up. It is counterintuitive that people from a country smothered in the virus should be anxious about travelling somewhere that is not , but the double-jabbed ranks of the autumn tourists can by now live a mostly unencumbered life at home. Travelling to or around Australia at present offers far less certainty.
Take the snap decision during the week for the Tasmanian state team to drop a match in Brisbane and fly home after four Covid cases were logged in a city that previously had none. It was not that the Tasmanians were paranoid about being infected, but that their own state could without notice close the border and require them to spend two weeks in quarantine before getting home. It was not worth the risk.
New South Wales and Victoria are comparatively riddled with the virus, with residents banned from travelling elsewhere besides a few essential exceptions. Half a dozen of Argentina’s rugby players found this out the hard way, after a day trip from Brisbane over the New South Wales border that ended in detainment when they tried to drive back for today’s match against the Wallabies. The Australian Football League grand final, contracted to be played each year at the Melbourne Cricket Ground until past the middle of this century, was moved to Perth so that a live crowd could attend the climax of the Australian rules season.
The rest of the states are open to one another, but that can change, and repeatedly have done, overnight. Queensland continues to record a couple of cases per day, which could swiftly become many more. And Queensland is where the England retinue is due to make landfall. There is little comfort for the tourists that after their initial quarantine to enter the country, they may be lumped with another stretch to move between states.
But, as Australia’s Test captain, Tim Paine, noted to some demur, the Ashes will go ahead regardless of which players decide to tour. The boards of Australia and England look after one another as reliably as they disregard anyone else but India, and there is too much money on the line for either to mess with the schedule. If the ECB has to send the Grimsby Town first XI, then so be it.
The good news for those England players is that the situation and restrictions are on track to ease before they arrive. As of the last day of September, Australia had passed 54% of people fully vaccinated nationwide, and is on track for 80% by early November. On Friday the federal government announced approval for states reaching that threshold to resume international arrivals for vaccinated travellers with one week of home quarantine rather than two weeks in hotels. There is also a plan for Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia to open travel between themselves once the threshold is reached.
Which means the likely England schedule will involve arriving in Queensland at a quarantine resort with training permissions agreed by that state government, spending perhaps half as long in isolation as anticipated, starting off at the Gabba, then being free to travel to Tests in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Western Australian government has been the country’s strictest throughout the pandemic, and shows no signs of changing, but the result won’t be to ask players for extra quarantine to enter the state, it will be to excise Perth from the itinerary. Having lodged a solitary Ashes win there back in 1978, few England cricketers will mourn that. If terms can be reached with Tasmania, then Hobart is a possible replacement. If not, Canberra recently hosted its first Test match and would jump at the chance.
None of which looks too onerous. In some ways, we are existing in a dual reality: the tour conditions that have to be agreed on now, between the two boards and the England players, have to assume that current restrictions will still be in place. The new laws do not yet exist. And yet it is all but certain that things will be different by late November. England’s concerns date a few weeks ago, and were valid then. But if the pandemic era has shown us one thing, it is how quickly anything can change.