SYDNEY, Australia — A lawyer for Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis star, argued in an Australian court on Monday that the government had erred in canceling a visa for Djokovic because he had complied with all the government’s requirements even though he has not been vaccinated for Covid-19.
The hearing took place five days after Djokovic arrived on a flight from Dubai for the Australian Open.
Djokovic arrived in Serbia late Wednesday night with a visa and exemption for vaccinations to play in the tournament that begins Jan. 17. However, border officials cancelled the visa with the support from Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister. Djokovic was not able to be exempted from the requirement that everyone enter the country fully vaccinated, according to the authorities.
The drawn-out conflict over the world’s top men’s tennis player, who is seeking to win a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, landed at the start of an election year in Australia and kicked off another round of international debate over vaccine politics.
With the Omicron variant pushing Covid case numbers to new heights both in Australia and the rest of the world, Djokovic’s detention pits those who argue that vaccination is more important than ever for preventing serious illness against those who insist that no one should be forced into inoculation.
Djokovic repeatedly stated his opposition to mandated vaccines, stating that vaccination is a personal and private decision. However, he did not reveal whether he had been vaccinated until last week.
In a court filing on Saturday, Djokovic’s lawyers said that the tennis star tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-December, and that the Australian government had erred in canceling his visa over the vaccine requirement.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff with Australia
On Monday, Anthony Kelly, the federal court judge overseeing Djokovic’s appeal, noted during the hearing that his visa application had included a medical exemption from a physician, supported by an independent panel convened by the Victoria state government.
“The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done?” Judge Kelly said.
But the federal government’s lawyers, in their filing, said that past Covid-19 infections were not a valid reason to defer immunization against the virus.
Under vaccine guidelines issued in December by the country’s chief medical body, people are expected to be vaccinated against Covid-19 after recovering from “acute major medical illness,” and, the government argued, “the evidence is that the applicant has recovered.”
It is not known when Djokovic became ill. he appeared at a live-streamed public event. He appeared at an awards ceremony in junior players the following day. Photographs showed that he wasn’t wearing a mask.
Even for many Australians who believe that the rules should apply to everyone, even sports stars, it is clear that they are embarrassed by the whole thing. Australia’s entry process for the tournament, and international travel generally during the pandemic, has been marred by confusion, dysfunction and political point-scoring that all add up to an image of incompetence.
Djokovic accidentally joined the fray on Tuesday when he announcedOn Twitter, he stated that he had been granted a medical exemption from the requirement for all Australians to be vaccinated or quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.
Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia, stated that players who sought an exemption had to meet with two panels made up of medical experts. This included the redaction and protection of personal information.
Communication between Tennis Australia and national health officials revealed contradictory messages regarding whether unvaccinated coronavirus-infected people would be granted an automatic medical exemption.
In November, federal officials wrote to Tiley to inform him that a positive test for the virus within the last six months would not be enough to allow automatic entry to the country without vaccination. But letters leaked to Australian news outlets showed that an adviser to Australia’s federal chief health officer had also told Tennis Australia that the state of Victoria, where the tournament is being held, was responsible for assessing exemptions.
On Dec. 2, Brett Sutton, the chief health officer in Victoria, wrote to Tennis Australia: “Anyone with a history of recent Covid-19 infection (defined as within 6 months) and who can provide appropriate evidence of this medical history, is exempt from quarantine obligations upon arrival in Victoria from overseas.”
Tennis Australia relayed the message to players five days later.
Djokovic arrived at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne, around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. Border officials told him that he would have no choice but to leave the country after a nearly 10-hour wait at the airport. He was kept in a hotel room overnight while border officials checked on the validity of the visa and asked about his medical exemption.
His team filed a lawsuit against the ruling Thursday. As his lawyers waited for a hearing, a judge ruled that Djokovic would be allowed in Australia to stay at a hotel that accommodates refugees at least until Monday.
At that point, the decision was already politically influenced. Australian leaders have a long history of winning elections with tough talk on border enforcement, despite the country’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centers, and Mr. Morrison has followed a predictable script.
Facing a tough re-election campaign as the economy starts to seize up from a surge of absences caused by an Omicron outbreak and a shortage of testing capacity, he pounced on the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa, trying to frame it as a clear-cut case of law and order.
“Rules are rules,” he said, adding, “Our government has strong form when it comes to securing our borders, and I don’t think anybody doubts that.”
Critics of Australia’s immigration policies said they were dismayed, but not surprised. Djokovic is currently staying at the hotel that houses dozens of refugees, some of whom have been held for almost a decade.
“As a country, we have been shown over time to be very aggressive in enforcing immigration policy,” said Steven Hamilton, a former Australian Treasury official who teaches economics at George Washington University. “People overseas should view this through that prism rather than as a health measure. It has nothing to do with health.”
Renata Voracova was told Friday by border officials that she too would have to leave Czech, even though she had been playing in tuneup tournaments.
Voracova was granted a medical exempt because she had Covid-19 for six months. She was moved to the same hotel with Djokovic, but decided to leave the country in her own accord rather than fighting the deportation ruling.
Source: NY Times