England insist no protocols were broken despite Covid outbreak

Ashley Giles has gone through a ‘pretty mad’ 24 hours

Ashley Giles has stated there were no breach of Covid-19 protocols that resulted in seven positive tests that led to England men picking a completely new squad for their ODI series against Pakistan.

On Monday, three players and four members staff returned positive PCR tests resulting in the entire group being placed into isolation ahead of the first of three 50-over matches on Thursday. As a result, a new group of 18 was selected, featuring nine uncapped players to be led by Ben Stokes, who was not part of the Sri Lanka squad as he was recovering from a broken finger. Chris Silverwood, who originally had these white ball series off, has returned from holiday to take charge. A back-up coaching staff is due to be announced.

“We are very confident the players haven’t breached any of those protocols,” said Giles, managing director of England men’s cricket. “We can almost identify through the positive cases that that is what we are seeing in how that spread has gone. We can’t say where it originated that is an almost impossible task from what I’m told amongst that many. We can identify how some of this has developed through close contact but given the size of the infection of the group it would be impossible and too risky to take any of the group forward.”

Speaking on Tuesday lunchtime after what he describes as a “pretty mad” 24 hours, Giles also stated they will tighten restrictions around the camp to ensure this and the upcoming Test series against India will go off without a hitch. The replacement players, many of whom were in County Championship action for their counties, will report to Cardiff where they will undergo PCR tests before coming into the secure environment. They must all isolate until the results come back. They will also enjoy none of the relative freedoms that were available during the limited-overs series against Sri Lanka, which included movement outside hotels and having family stay with them for a period of time.

Giles also stated a complete change of squad was unavoidable. Questions were asked as to whether this was necessary given there have been examples in football during the ongoing European Championships where a positive test did not have the knock-on effect for the whole squad. Notably, Scotland’s Billy Gilmour’s positive had no effect on his international teammates but did see his Chelsea teammates Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell placed into isolation after they conversed with the 20-year-old in the tunnel at Wembley after England’s 0-0 draw with Scotland on 18 June.

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“We followed the medical advice more than anything,” stated Giles. “Given the size of the problem it was clear quite early on it wouldn’t be viable for a number of reasons.

“Even taking some players forward, whatever we thought the risks were, to then bring other guys in to play with players who could already be infected, it just doesn’t sit well with any of us. That’s unfortunate but we felt this was the cleanest way of doing it.

“From a performance point of view it’s not our best team, we know that, but it’s exciting for these guys. We’ve got a good mix of 30-pluses and some young guys as well. Some of those guys will have thought their chance of playing for England was gone forever. It’s time to look on the positive side of that now. Going to a full house at Lord’s will be a great occasion for them.”

The snowball was set in motion on Monday morning when two members of the England management tested positive after lateral flow tests. Precautions were taken to isolate the pair while keeping the rest of the group in place. Then, on Monday night, a wider spread was confirmed

At the time of writing, the players remain at the team hotel in Bristol and will be judged case by case as to whether they will be able to return home to continue their isolation. All staff and players have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Protocols this summer were less stringent than last year. In 2020, bio-secure bubbles at the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford were uncompromising, with no one internally allowed to leave unless to walk around the respective complexes which included the golf course adjoining the ground at Southampton.

This time around, restrictions had loosened in line with government guidelines for the rest of the public. Relaxed protocols meant, under the right risk assessments, players were able to play golf at external venues, while also exercising outdoors and grabbing takeaway coffees. Players were also allowed to have their families join them in hotels provided they were deemed safe through testing and contact with the outside world.

There was also a lot more travelling with Lord’s, Birmingham, Cardiff, Southampton, Chester-le-Street, the Kia Oval and Bristol all hosting games this summer. That in turn meant a variety of hotels in which certain spaces were shared, though not key spaces like eating areas.

However, the emergence of the Delta variant, which saw 23,052 new cases on Monday (5 July) in the United Kingdom, has moved the goalposts. The ECB’s initial planning, including working towards bringing fans back through the gates, was put in place before this more infectious variant emerged.

“If we go back to the start of this summer, I think we always hoped we would move somewhat with society, as society started to open up,” said Giles. “And that was always the plan until the variant arrived. So actually what we had planned in terms of opening up, in terms of much more access to families, eating outside, the normal freedoms other people are taking for granted right now, just didn’t happen. We had discussions about this as recent as the weekend with the players. That we still hoped for this to be the case – and then this happens.

“It’s a reminder to all of us what this can do to a team and to a sports team particularly right now. I guess we are sort of living at a different rate to society. We are almost misaligned, at odds to how society is operating. That is particularly difficult when we know one case can shut you down, let alone seven.”

“If relaxing is allowing those guys to eat together or spend some time together – and they spend a lot of time in the dressing room together where that infection can happen – it’s almost impossible to completely remove that risk I think from the environment.”

Giles also hopes this situation will be the last of its kind from 19 July when the government are set to lift most of their covid rules. While that would not change how positive cases are approached, it would alter how close contact is deemed and treated, which would avoid complete squad redrafts as has happened here. Were a similar situation arise during the five-match Test series in India from August, it would have a debilitating impact on the series and finances of English cricket.

“I think we all want society to return to normal as quickly as possible and I’m sure after the 19th we’ll get some tools if you like that will help us do that more easily, particularly around how we treat – not so much positive cases because they’re positive cases – but certainly close contacts in all sport. And you know we’re hearing that may change through society and I hope that’s replicated in professional sport.”

“We’re all hopeful that as this summer moves forward we will be able to reduce the restrictions around the teams and one of the important things around that is getting everyone double vaccinated then we should be able to enjoy more freedoms.

“We’ve got a group of very young, fit people many of whom will be asymptomatic even if they catch this. I think I heard to government talk about treating this as flu eventually and we’re gonna get to that stage. At the moment we’re operating at odds with that, it’s tough to manage but we’re doing the best possible job we can with it.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Cricket Board are satisfied with the action from the ECB, and are willing to continue with the three ODIs and three T20is as planned. A statement from the governing body read: “The PCB is satisfied by the assurances and guarantees provided by the ECB on behalf of its medical panel, and feels comfortable with the existing protocols that have been put in place to ensure all the Pakistan players and player support staff remain safe and secure throughout the duration of the series, which commences on Thursday, 8 July, in Cardiff.”

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