Sunday, 28th May 2023

What really tripped up Djokovic at Australia’s border?

Tennis superstar Novak Djokovic's Australian visa disaster may be down to a subtle but important difference in the Covid-19 vaccination rules for either playing in the Australian Open

People hold placards up at a government detention centre where Serbia’s tennis champion Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying in Melbourne on January 7, 2022, after Australia said it had cancelled the entry visa of Djokovic, opening the way to his detention and deportation in a dramatic reversal for the tennis world number one. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

Tennis superstar Novak Djokovic’s Australian visa disaster may be down to a subtle but important difference in the Covid-19 vaccination rules for either playing in the Australian Open or getting into the country.

The nine-time Australian Open champion was dramatically stripped of his entry visa and placed in a government detention centre in Melbourne this week, sparking an outcry from his fans and family.

He was spending Orthodox Christmas Day there on Friday.

Despite much finger-pointing, however, it is still not clear what exactly happened when the 34-year-old Serbian handed over his passport and papers at border control in Melbourne airport’s terminal 2 late on Wednesday night.

It is now emerging, at least from the Australian government’s perspective, that Djokovic failed to meet the stricter Covid-19 vaccine requirements for foreign nationals coming into Australia.

Crucially, the requirements for foreign nationals trying to cross the border are more stringent than they are for Australians who want to get an exemption from Covid-19 vaccinations at home.

A key difference in Australia is that you can get a temporary vaccine exemption if you can show you had a Covid-19 infection in the past six months, under guidelines issued by the official Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

If you are a foreign national coming into Australia, you can’t.

It has not been confirmed that Djokovic actually used a previous infection as his reason for not being double-vaccinated.

If he did base his exemption on those grounds, it would have been enough to get him an exemption to play at the Australian Open in a process set up by Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government.

But it would not have been enough to get into the country.

That is because Tennis Australia based its exemptions criteria on the ATAGI guidelines that apply to Australians at home.

“An exemption by the Victorian government to play tennis in Victoria is entirely different to any exemption or entry requirement for Australia’s purposes,” the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, said Friday.

To enter Australia, she said, you need a visa but you also need to meet the entry requirements: a negative Covid-19 PCR test and complete vaccination, or medical proof that you cannot be vaccinated.

‘A question for Tennis Australia
Government sources told national broadcaster ABC that Djokovic handed border agents a medical exemption on a Tennis Australia letterhead that was signed by the organisation’s chief medical officer.

This, they said, was rejected.

The government says it had already warned Tennis Australia about this.

In a letter that has been released to the media, Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote to Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley in November warning that players trying to enter Australia would not get a vaccine exemption because of a recent Covid-19 infection.

Without a double-jab, overseas players trying to enter the country who have been infected by Covid-19 in the past six months “are not considered fully vaccinated”, he wrote.

“That was outlined to Tennis Australia,” Andrews said Friday. “How they communicated that, I cannot provide you any clarity with that. That is clearly a question for Tennis Australia.”

Tennis Australia has not provided further details on this question, although it has defended the process for giving players exemptions.

“For tennis players, it was a process that goes above and beyond what anyone coming into Australia would have experienced,” Tiley said this week.

Tennis Australia said the rules, drawn up with the Victorian state government, required any exemptions to be cleared through two medical panels.

But the difference between the Australian Open’s Covid-19 exemption rules and Australia’s immigration regulations may have caught out other tennis players or staff, too.

Two other players or staff attending the Australian Open are also now being investigated, the home affairs minister has confirmed.

For Djokovic, his chances of regaining his visa and defending his Australian Open title now hang on the decision of a federal court judge who has scheduled a hearing for Monday morning.