Tennis Australia release statement on Novak Djokovic controversy as visa issue drags on

Novak Djokovic facing anxious wait over Australia visa appeal

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Tennis Australia has responded after it was revealed that the governing body appeared to wrongly tell players they could enter the country unvaccinated if they had recently recovered from Covid-19. Novak Djokovic had his visa cancelled when arriving in Melbourne on Wednesday with a medical exemption, and two more people associated with the tournament using the same exemption have since had their visas revoked.

Djokovic announced on Tuesday that he was flying Down Under after receiving “an exemption permission”, with Tennis Australia later confirming the nine-time Aussie Open champion “applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.”

But border officials found an “issue” with the world No 1’s visa while he was mid-air, and Djokovic was taken to an airport room for overnight questioning when landing late on Wednesday and failed to provide both border officials and the Victorian government with sufficient evidence for his medical exemption.

The 34-year-old was said to be entering the country on the grounds that he had recovered from a Covid-19 infection in the last six months which Australian Border Force rejected,

His visa was cancelled on Thursday morning as border officials announced: “The ABF can confirm that Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled. Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia.”

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Djokovic’s lawyers appealed the decision and the Serb was granted permission to stay in a Melbourne detention hotel until Monday, when the hearing resumes after court was adjourned on Thursday evening.

Two more people connected to the tournament were then found to be in Australia under the same exemption following an investigation in Thursday – one official and one player.

The unnamed official departed the country while doubles world No 81 Renata Voracova, who had already played a match at an Australian Open warm-up tournament on Wednesday, was taken to the same hotel as Djokovic but has since decided to leave the country.

It later emerged that government officials had explicitly told Tennis Australia that previous Covid-19 infection and recovery in the last six months was not valid grounds for a vaccine medical exemption, but the governing body for tennis in Australia continued to communicate contradicting information to tennis players.

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Back in November, both Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt and a representative for the government’s Department of Health both wrote to Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley to inform him that recent infection was not justified as a medical exemption.

“The Australian Border Force has advised that people must be fully vaccinated, as defined by ATAGI (the national advisory body on vaccines) to gain quarantine-free entry into Australia,” Hunt confirmed two months ago.

“In relation to your specific questions, I can confirm that people who contracted Covid-19 within the past six months and seek to enter Australia from overseas, and have not received two doses of a Therapeutic Goods Administration-approved or recognised vaccine are not considered fully vaccinated.”

His sentiment was echoed by Lisa Schofield from the Department of Health, who also sent a letter to Tiley in November stating: “ATAGI advises that past infection with SARS-CoV-2 is not a contraindication to vaccination. People with laboratory confirmation of past infection can start their vaccination course, or complete the second dose if they have already had a first dose prior to being infected by SARS-CoV-2, as soon as they have recovered from the symptomatic infection. The minimum interval requirement between the two doses must still be met.”

It contradicts a statement issued by Tennis Australia on Tuesday, as they claimed “applications were reviewed and approved only in line with ATAGI guidelines.”

Documents uncovered by Australia’s Herald Sun then showed that Tennis Australia continued to tell players they would be able to apply for a vaccine medical exemption on the grounds that they had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in the last six months, even after receiving the letters.

In an email sent to the ATP on December 7 2021 and later passed on to players, they informed players there was a two-step process to follow in order to play in the Australian Open without being vaccinated.

Their advice included a clause explaining that players needed to prove they had contracted the virus in the last six months – the grounds for which Djokovic and Voracova are thought to have received their respective medical exemptions.

Victoria’s acting Premier Jacinta Allan also revealed that Tennis Australia failed to inform the state government that the Commonwealth had previously communicated that previous infection was not a genuine medical exemption, leaving the blame solely with the country’s governing body for tennis.

But on Friday, Tennis Australia responded to the accusations in a new statement.

“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. We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled,” they wrote to Herald Sun.

“Informing players they could get into the country on a medical exemption was taken from the Smart Traveller website that Greg Hunt directly referred us to. https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/COVID-19/COVID-19-vaccinations#exemption

“The purpose of this document was to explain eligibility to participate in the AO under Victorian laws which required that an exemption be in line with the ATAGI guidance.

“The summary of the ATAGI guidance in particular the information related to recent infection was new information taken from the expanded guidance issued by ATAGI.”

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