(THE GUARDIAN) – The Australian Grand Prix will go ahead next month despite concerns that the spread of coronavirus may affect the start of the Formula One season, the Victorian state government has said.
This follows comments by the Formula One chief executive, Chase Carey, to reporters that the three opening races – Melbourne, Bahrain and Hanoi – would go ahead.
“We’re heading to Melbourne, heading to Bahrain and heading to Hanoi,” the American said.
Concerns about the viability of the season are growing with the spread of the outbreak in northern Italy, where Ferrari and the Alpha Tauri (formerly Toro Rosso) team are headquartered.
On Wednesday (Feb 26), the Italian authorities said the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had surged to 400, with 12 deaths.
The track in Albert Park has been under construction for a month and the Victorian Sports Minister, Mr Martin Pakula, said the race would go ahead as planned.
“Melbourne is the only city in the world to host a Formula One race and a Grand Slam tennis tournament, and we look forward to the Grand Prix celebrating 25 years at Albert Park on March 15,” he said.
Andrew Westacott, the chief executive of the Australian Grand Prix corporation, said whether the race went ahead would be matter for the government. Neither the Australian government nor Formula One management have suggested the date may have to change.
“We take guidance from the chief medical officers in Australia and ultimately from government,” he told reporters. “Government and health officers will look at things medically and economically and assess risk.”
It is one of the four biggest sporting events held in Melbourne each year, following the Australian Open, Australian Football League grand final and spring racing carnival.
The Australian Grand Prix corporation said attendance at the 2019 race was the highest since 2005, giving an “estimated attendance” of 324,100 over the four-day event.
It receives substantial government funding. Last year that came to A$60.2 million (S$55.1 million), more than half of the cost of running the event. The contract for the city to host the event has been extended to 2025.
Felicia Mariani, the chief executive of the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, said Victoria could not afford for the event to be cancelled.
“Victoria and Victorian tourism, already reeling under the weight of bush fires and now the coronavirus, can hardly afford either the reputational or economic damage that would come from a cancelled or downscaled Grand Prix,” she said in a statement to Guardian Australia.
“Victoria is reliant on hallmark international events like the Grand Prix to boost visitation, inject much needed funds back into its economy and help rebuild the hard-hit tourism sector.
“Safety is paramount, however, and if it comes to the point of cancellation, the industry needs to brace itself and be ready to respond accordingly.”
The Australian government extended its travel ban for China on Thursday (Feb 27), but Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “further travel bans were not recommended”.
Australia has enacted its emergency response plan to the coronavirus, and he said “we believe the risk of a pandemic is very much upon us”.
Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr Brett Sutton, told reporters in Melbourne it was “very likely” that a pandemic would be declared and that “literally dozens” of people had been working on the state’s contingency plans for months.
The national emergency plan will be discussed at a meeting of state and federal health ministers in Melbourne on Friday. “I don’t want to see us get caught out at all because we think that it can be stopped or it probably will be stopped,” he said.
“I think it’s much much safer that we proceed on the basis that it’s inevitable and that we can and should expect cases in Australia in coming weeks or months.”
Chinese nationals account for 21 per cent of international visitors to the state, spending US$3.4 billion (S$4.8 billion) in Victoria last year.
Mariani said it had been a devastating start to the year for the tourism industry. “The decisions around travel restrictions and how that might affect the conduct of the Australian Grand Prix will be made by government and health officials with the safety of the nation at its core,” she said.
“We hope it will not come to cancellation, but the industry will need to be prepared for this, should it occur.”
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