Serbian tennis superstar, Novak Djoković mounted his legal challenge on Saturday to being refused entry to Australia. The player claims he obtained immigration clearance to enter the country after contracting COVID-19 last month.
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Djoković, a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, has been held since Thursday in a modest Melbourne hotel after his visa was canceled due to problems with the said clearance.
The incident has escalated a furore over Australia's handling of a medical exemption from the country’s vaccination rules for person’s who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection.
The drama has become a diplomatic issue, as Serbia says Australia is treating Djoković as a prisoner. It has also become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world. His filing, ahead of a court hearing on Monday over his visa cancellation, says Djoković had received the exemption from tournament organiser Tennis Australia, with a follow-up letter from the Department of Home Affairs saying he was allowed into the country.
“I explained that I had been recently infected with COVID-19 in December 2021 and on this basis I was entitled to a medical exemption in accordance with Australian Government rules and guidance,” Djoković says in the filing about his experience being detained at Melbourne Airport.
Djoković returned his first positive COVID-19 test on December 16 but by December 30 “had not had a fever or respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 72 hours”, the filing says. On January 1, it says, he received a document from Home Affairs telling him his responses indicated he met “the requirements for a quarantine-free arrival into Australia”.
The federal court has ordered Home Affairs to file its response by Sunday. The Border Force, a unit of Home Affairs, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on Saturday.
The Australian Open starts on January 17.
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Recovery vs vaccination
Many countries allow a recent COVID infection as a reason for an exemption from vaccine requirements, but Australia’s federal government released a letter soon after Djoković arrived showing that it had notified Tennis Australia that was not necessarily the case in the country. The federal and Victorian state governments and Tennis Australia have denied responsibility for the dispute.
Tennis Australia said it never knowingly misled players and had always urged players to be vaccinated. “We have always been consistent in our communications to players that vaccination is the best course of action - not just as the right thing to do to protect themselves and others, but also as the best course of action to ensure they could arrive in Australia,” Tennis Australia said in a statement quoted by local media.
“We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled,” the communique readss.
Tennis Australia’s advice was based on the contents of a federal government website to which it had been referred by the federal health minister, the statement added.
According to News Corp, the group's information sheet said players could enter the country with an “overseas medical exemption” that had been “reviewed by an Australian medical practitioner” then entered on a central database.
The document was distributed to players last month, News Corp reported. But the federal government released a letter showing it wrote to Tennis Australia in November saying that prior infection with COVID-19 was not necessarily grounds for exemption in Australia, as it was elsewhere.
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley defended the organisation’s actions, according to a video that emerged on Saturday.
In an address to Tennis Australia staff, uploaded to News Corp websites, Mr Tiley said he would tell the full story about the saga but was constrained because Djoković was challenging his visa cancellation in court.