Ireland minister for health Simon Harris issued a clear message to both the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Six Nations that the fixture on 7 March at the Aviva Stadium should not go ahead after Italy saw the number of cases of coronavirus increase significantly on Tuesday.
There have been 322 cases diagnosed in Italy, making it the worst-hit country in Europe, with the chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Angelo Borrelli confirming on Tuesday night that a further four people had died from coronavirus in the north of the country, taking the total death toll to 11.
However, a statement from the IRFU suggested that they had not been directly contacted by Harris’ office, and as of Tuesday night the match was still scheduled to go ahead.
An IRFU statement read: “The IRFU is seeking an urgent meeting with Minister (Simon) Harris as to the specific reasoning behind calling for the cancellation of the Ireland vs Italy Six Nations fixture in the contest of the government’s overall travel policy to and from Italy and other affected countries.”
One issue is that even if the match is cancelled next weekend, a number of Italians who already have travel and accommodation booked for Dublin are still expected to travel to the Irish capital.
“Until such time as the IRFU has had contact with the Minister and gets an understanding of the government’s strategic policy on travel to and from Ireland and the cancellation of mass gatherings, it is not in a position to comment further,” the statement added.
The IRFU’s decision comes after Harris said on Tuesday that the escalating crisis regarding the outbreak should result in the match being postponed.
"The very clear view of the public health emergency team was that this game should not go ahead,” Harris told RTE.
While Harris’s comments were a recommendation – with the IRFU ultimately having the final decision – he did stress that having the Italian squad, staff and fans travel to Dublin posed “a significant risk because a very large number of people will be travelling from what is now an affected region.
"My department will be contacting the IRFU in relation to this. I know when it comes to cause a great disappointment to many, but it is important to make decisions in relation to public health above and beyond all other considerations."
The final decision will have to be made in the coming days, but it will only add to fears that England’s final Six Nations match in Rome will be postponed or cancelled. While the majority of positive cases have come in the northern region of Italy, Tuesday saw the first case of coronavirus confirmed in the south, with a woman diagnosed on the island of Sicily after travelling south from Bologna.
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