Issues over vaccine exemption and his visa has held up Novak Djokovic at the Melbourne airport where he had arrived in pursuit of a record 21st grand slam title. Victory at the Australian Open — which Djokovic has won nine times previously — would cement his place at the pinnacle of men’s tennis, but the talking point ahead of the tournament that gets underway January 17 now revolves around the controversy that has had the Australian prime minister and Serbian president weighing in. Here’s what you need to know.
Why Did Djokovic Seek Vaccine Exemption?
While he had remained tight-lipped about his vaccination status, ahead of heading for Australia, Djokovic revealed that he had received an exemption from authorities to compete at the Australian Open. He had earlier said that he was not sure about showing up at the Melbourne event given quarantine rules Down Under.
“I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022," the Serbian said on Instagram on January 4.
According to reports, Australian Open organisers Tennis Australia (TA) had mandated that all players need to either have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus or obtained a medical exemption from an independent panel of experts consisting of experts from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice. The mechanism for the exemption process is said to have been worked out through consultations with the health department in the Australian state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital.
TA said that Djokovic had applied for and received a medical exemption against vaccination after a “rigorous review process" involving two separate independent panels of medical experts. A BBC report pointed out that it was not clear, however, as to what the grounds were under which Djokovic had sought exemption from vaccination.
Was The Exemption A One-Off Case?
The Australian Open organisers said they had made an arrangement under which participants at the event could seek an exemption from the rule of compulsory vaccination provided they could show valid reasons for it.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said as many as 26 of the roughly 3,000 players and support staff who were headed to Australia for the event had sought a vaccine exemption and that only a handful of them had received it. He said there had been no special favours shown to Djokovic, the men’s singles world No.1, and the process for screening of exemption requests did not involve the experts knowing the identity of the applicants.
The organisers had ensured “redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants" in the exemption screening process, TA said, adding that details of names, ages and nationalities had been removed. Tiley stressed that “fair and independent protocols" were followed and that Djokovic went through the “completely legitimate application and process".
Tiley said while Djokovic, the defending men’s singles champion this year, received “no special favour", he had been urged to reveal to the public the grounds under which he got the exemption to dispel anger and speculation of special treatment.
Reports said that one of the conditions under which the requirement for compulsory vaccinations could be waived was if the participant had Covid-19 in the past six months. While it was not revealed if that was the case with Djokovic, he has in the past talked about his disinclination to getting jabbed. “Personally I am not pro-vaccines. I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel," he had said.
If He Received An Exemption, Then Why Has He Been Held Up At The Airport?
Reports said that Djokovic and his team were stopped at the airport after it was found they had obtained a visa that did not allow for medical exemptions. That led to border officials contacting the Victoria government to ask if it would permit Djokovic’s entry into the state. Visa and international entry are the jurisdiction of the federal government in Australia.
“The federal government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia. We will not be providing Novak Djokovic with individual visa application support to participate in the 2022 Australian Open Grand Slam," said Victoria’s acting sports minister Jaala Pulford, adding that they have “always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the federal government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors".
That puts the fate of Djokovic’s Australian Open participation in the hands of Australian PM Scott Morrison, who has faced a backlash over the issue of vaccine exemption. Victoria is said to have faced the “world’s longest cumulative lockdown" and has been hit by a record surge in cases amid the rise of the Omicron variant.
Following criticism over the exemption to Djokovic from fellow and former players and citizens alike, Morrison had hinted that the waiver may not be final and that Djokovic would have to satisfy the requirements for entering the country mandated by the federal government, which was not part of the exemption process.
“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home," Morrison had told the media.
However, as Djokovic was held up at a facility near the airport — it was not clear immediately if he would leave Australia or mount a legal challenge against the bar on his entry — a diplomatic situation was unfolding between Canberra and Belgrade with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.