Update: Novak Djokovic denied entry to Australia amid vaccine furor

Novak Djokovic was denied entry to Australia after border officials overruled a vaccine exemption that sparked a national uproar and underlines the complex alignment of federal and state Covid-19 policies that’s become a hallmark of the nation’s pandemic journey.

The tennis star, who was due to contest the Australian Open this month despite doubts over his vaccine status, provided insufficient proof to enter the country under current pandemic rules, the Australian Border Force said Thursday.

While he was earlier granted a medical exemption to enter the state of Victoria, the federal government revoked that decision after officials questioned the athlete for hours at Melbourne Airport.

2021 US Open - Day 12

“Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently canceled,” the ABF statement said. “Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa canceled will be detained and removed from Australia.”

Djokovic’s lawyers are appealing the decision and he’s been moved to a Melbourne hotel while that process takes place, the ABC and Sydney Morning Herald reported. He is chasing a record 21st Grand Slam victory after winning nine Australian Open singles titles, including the past three tournaments.

The backflip is the latest example of the confusion surrounding Covid guidelines that’s plaguing both officials and citizens as case numbers continue to surge. Throughout the pandemic, states have largely set their own policies on the entry of overseas and local visitors, as well as lockdowns, but the federal government ultimately decides on who can enter the country. 

“There are no special cases: rules are rules,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “If you are not double vaccinated and not an Australian resident or citizen, you cannot come.” 

The disparity between state policies has caused upheaval during the holiday period, with some states demanding tests and different requirements for residents from other regions. The two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, have loosened entry restrictions for both overseas and local visitors even as the omicron variant has seen case numbers to surge in recent weeks, with hospitalizations also slowly climbing. 

The initial exemption for Djokovic, who has previously criticized vaccine mandates, sparked criticism and anger in host-city Melbourne, which became the world’s most locked down city during the pandemic. The player was among a handful of competitors granted medical exemptions for the tournament, the first of the four annual Grand Slam events, which begins Jan. 17. 

Arriving players and support staff from overseas who have a valid medical exemption can follow the same rules for travelers into Victoria state who are fully vaccinated, though face some greater restrictions on entering sensitive settings such as schools. 

It’s a marked departure from the experience of the world’s tennis elite in 2021 where 14-day hotel quarantine in Melbourne was required with strict rules around daily testing and close contacts. 

While many Victorians will welcome the Covid rules being applied to overseas sports people as well as themselves, the denial of Djokovic’s entry into the state hasn’t gone down well in his native Serbia.  

“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him, and that our authorities are taking all measures to stop the maltreatment of the world’s best tennis player in the shortest possible time,” President Aleksandar Vucic said in an Instagram post translated from Serbian.

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