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'A can of worms': questions over plan for Covid vaccine priority for NRL players

Mike Hytner
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

A plan for NRL players to jump the queue to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in a bid to ensure the 2021 season runs smoothly runs the risk of “opening a can of worms”, according to a leading health expert.

Peter V’landys, the Australian Rugby League Commission chairman, will make a request to the federal government to prioritise his code’s players ahead of the vast majority of people in Australia.

In comments reported by the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, V’landys said he will ask players to be included in the third wave of vaccinations – a group which includes those aged 50 to 69 and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged between 18 and 54.

Related: Australian players prioritise South Africa Test tour over New Zealand T20

Julie Leask, a professor of social science at the University of Sydney who specialises in vaccine uptake, said vaccine prioritisation was primarily about preventing death, and that the NRL’s plan could be just the beginning of a number of groups stating a case to be added higher up the list.

“Prioritisation makes sense,” Leask said. “Groups asking for exceptional consideration opens up a large can of worms that the government has to deal with.

“It probably should be right now figuring out ways it can proactively deal with those requests in a way that is transparent, that’s consistent and is clear on what values are being applied on the decision making.”

Those slated to be vaccinated in the first wave include 700,000 frontline workers in the health sector, border enforcement, hotel quarantine, aged care and disability care; and residents of aged and disability care.

The second tier of 6 million recipients is made up of Australians aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 55, healthcare workers, younger adults with underlying health conditions and emergency services workers.

The rest of the population will be vaccinated in the fourth wave.

“The prioritisation has focused on preventing death, protecting those at greater risk of exposure and equity,” Leask said. “Whether healthy younger people in a privileged situation should be receiving that vaccine earlier on is a matter for government. Ultimately, it’s also a matter for the Australian people.

“Most of the NRL players in their 20s or 30s will be in the last priority groups for vaccinations given they are young, fit and healthy people. The question is: is there an ethical or economic case for prioritising the players?

Related: Pfizer Covid vaccine approved for Australia rollout but PM warns jabs not 'a silver bullet'

“There are going to be groups that haven’t been thought of who will say, ‘What about us? Are you putting an NRL player ahead of me?’

“The NRL may well have a legitimate case to make, because sport is important to many Australians and it is part of our economy but equally, why don’t we also prioritise orchestras so that people who can enjoy music can enjoy music?

“It troubles me a little bit that the loudest and most privileged are able to get this kind of attention, but I hope the government will be considering these requests in a fair and equitable way.”

The federal government currently plans to roll out its vaccination plan with 80,000 doses administered a week, before ramping that up to achieve the target of vaccinating 4 million people by the end of March.

“Emergency workers have got to get it first and the most vulnerable have got to get it first. Who is after that? Well, that’s where we come in,” V’landys said on Monday.

“Under no circumstances are we going to jump the gun and go before emergency workers and the most vulnerable. But after that, there’s naturally some discussions to be had, to be on that list relatively high.”

The 25-round NRL season is scheduled to start 11 March. Last season was disrupted by the pandemic, with players placed in secure bio-bubbles as the delayed and shortened campaign played out.

The impact of Covid also forced the New Zealand-based Warriors to set up semipermanent camp in Australia and play the entire season away from home.

The league’s prioritised vaccination plan would help the Warriors to finally play on their home ground – for the first time since August 2019.

But even if the NRL’s request was given the green light, matters for the Warriors could be complicated further after New Zealand recorded its first case of community transmission in two months and Australia suspended its travel bubble with its trans-Tasman neighbour on Monday.

Related: NRL star Jarryd Hayne set to face retrial on rape charges after jury failed to reach verdict

Cricket Australia last week applied for the men’s Test team and staff to be vaccinated prior to departing for a three-match series in South Africa next month.

The request came as the team’s chief medical officer Dr John Orchard said he expected members of the touring party would contract the virus at some stage, given South Africa’s high infection rates.

The cricket players’ union boss, Greg Dyer, said Cricket Australia’s stance on giving athletes priority was “morally indefensible”.