But while Giles, the managing director of England’s men’s teams, admits rules may be tightened in light of the episode, he defended both the ECB’s protocols and the squad’s behaviour in adhering to them.
Instead, he suggested the ECB were in “an almost impossible situation” as they attempted to retain some measure of protection on the squad while society opens up all around them despite escalating numbers of positive cases.
“I’m very confident the players haven’t breached any of those protocols,” Giles said. “We can’t say where it [the virus] originated, but we can identify how some of this has developed through close contact.
“We haven’t gambled. I don’t believe we’ve gambled at all. We are fully aware of the risks and we are aware of the knife edge that we are working on all the time. We are trying to look after our people and keeping them sane while protecting the revenues of the whole game. It is a difficult balance to strike.
“Let’s stop talking about relaxed protocols. If we haven’t got sole use of hotels, if we have grounds with crowds and you have staff coming in and out of the environment then, however much testing you do, there is going to be risk. We are seeing an almost-impossible situation as society opens and the virus is still spreading.”
It is understood that everyone involved in the squad had received at least a first vaccine, with Giles promising to “get everyone double-vaccinated as soon as we can.”
At the start of the summer, the England management had hoped they would be able to relax the rules around the squad. With the Delta variant creating a new spike in cases, however, most of those plans were shelved. So while the teams no longer have entire hotels to themselves – as was the case in the summer of 2020 – they are still not permitted to eat in restaurants or visit bars for anything more than takeaway coffee.
The ECB are mindful of the mental strain of asking players to live in bio-bubbles for concerted periods of time, however, and have made efforts to ensure players could see more of their families. So while players involved in the Sri Lanka series were not allowed home ahead of the Pakistan series, their families were permitted to visit them.
“We always hoped we would open up as society opened up,” Giles said. “That was always the plan until the variant arrived. But actually what we had planned – 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.
“But 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 all risk from the environment.
“This year’s protocols have been very close to last year’s protocols. Guys were able to go and play golf, as they were last year under the right risk assessments. There was a period at the start of the trip when, after a risk assessment, guys were able go and exercise outdoors and grab a takeaway coffee. But that was it.
“That was two-and-a-half weeks ago when the country was in a different place. Since that point, the squad have been living under very tight restrictions, so this is a frustration for everyone.
“We are certainly juggling with the amount of time our players have spent in these environments. We have extremely busy schedules and we’ve been doing this now for 14 or 15 months. To expect them to stay away from each other [at games], go back to the hotel, put their masks on and go straight back to their rooms and eat on their own… it’s almost impossible for that period of time without losing people.
“But yes, last year we lived in bio-secure environments and this year we tried to operate in what we called ‘safe environments’. Hotels weren’t sole use. We were sharing certain spaces within the hotel but not key areas like eating areas. And given this variant, which is clearly more infectious, the risk of us catching infection in the group was obviously going to go up.”
Despite the team management’s desire to minimise the sense of isolation players may feel while they are in the bubble, Giles warned that protocols are likely to be tightened in the immediate future. Not only would there appear to be a growing risk from the Delta variant, but doubts over the viability of the series will increase if there is another large-scale outbreak. At this stage, these is no indication that Pakistan – or, indeed, India – are expressing reservations about upcoming matches, but the ECB will feel the need to rebuild the sense of security they achieved last year. There is, at this stage, no guarantee that the new squad will prove entirely free of the virus, either.
“During this period – these next six games – I think we are going to have to tighten up the environment,” Giles said. “I think it’s unlikely that we’ll have [family] visits into the hotels. Previously those visits were very carefully risk-assessed and arduous, actually.
“But we’re still going to be in shared spaces in hotels so there’s still risk. So I think we need to be all over our protocols. And while I don’t think we’ve been slack, I think we just need to reinforce that, with a new group of people, some of them have never been in these environments.
“It’s an unprecedented situation in terms of what we have been able to do from making the decision that that squad was not viable to having a new group of players and management team. We are dealing with difficult circumstances and there is still a bit of unknown. We probably won’t sleep easy until we have got through those PCR tests and arrive in Cardiff.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo