Djokovic was expected to arrive at Tullamarine Airport late on Wednesday night on a commercial flight, where he would need to discuss the exemption with Australian Border Force officers, who technically have the power to reject requests for vaccination exemptions. The recommendation for an exemption from the Victorian government-appointed panel, however, meant it was unlikely he would be turned away.
Djokovic is among “a handful” of players and officials exempted from being vaccinated against COVID-19 at the upcoming tournament. Tennis Australia said 26 applications had been made for medical exemptions, with the number of those granted not revealed.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations issued guidelines in November on the circumstances for a temporary exemption, including stipulating that vaccination can be deferred for a “PCR-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection” in the past six months.
Personal information was redacted when applications were assessed by two independent medical panels, but TA’s chief medical officer Dr Carolyn Broderick said on Wednesday that neither her organisation nor government expert panels had tested the veracity of documents provided in applications. She said any members of the review panels in Australia would not have had direct contact with doctors overseas.
“In some instances they requested additional information but, no, they wouldn’t have contact with doctors from another country. They [members of the review panels] were looking for official seals on these documents from overseas, it wasn’t just based on a text message.
“Some of the documents they’re receiving from overseas … these were actually formal laboratory reports.
“As far as any medical professional would look at the documents, they’re not doing any sort of intelligence operation.”
Asked to assess the proportion of applicants who’d previously had COVID-19, Dr Broderick said: “I can’t comment on our group [of applicants] but if you look at an Australian group of people applying for a medical exemption, the vast majority are for recent COVID, particularly in an environment where Omicron is so prevalent – the vast majority is recent COVID.
“I would expect it [the group of 26] would reflect the rest of the population.”
Djokovic had a busy playing schedule last year as he chased the Grand Slam and went to the Tokyo Olympics. He didn’t play between the end of the US Open in mid-September until the start of November.
The Serbian star contracted COVID-19 during his ill-fated 2020 Adria Tour event, which he organised in the Balkans, amid a lack of social distancing and parties that included shirtless dancing, but said he did not suffer any symptoms.
Premier Daniel Andrews said late last year that the state government would not apply for exemptions for any players, saying, “I’m not going to actually require people sitting in the grandstand, people working at the event to be vaccinated while players aren’t”.
Instead it worked on a two-part exemption regime with TA and in December, amid reports Djokovic was pursuing an exemption, then-Acting Premier James Merlino said medical exemptions would be respected if granted legitimately.
‘The decent thing to do’
Djokovic has repeatedly said his vaccination status is a private matter. Mr Tiley and Acting Victorian Sports Minister Jaala Pulford and Acting Premier Jacinta Allan encouraged him to speak frankly when he arrives in Melbourne.
“It’s the government’s expectation that when he does arrive, he explains to the Victorian community what the circumstances [are of his exemption] and can then explain some of these motives behind his actions and his intentions in playing here in Australia,” Ms Allan said.
The Acting Premier said that was “probably only the decent thing to do,” and described coming to the country and playing in the Australian Open as a privilege, as she reiterated that the ATAGI guidelines meant Djokovic was allowed in the country under a legitimate exemption.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when asked about the exemption process and if it was appropriate for Djokovic to obtain one, said: “States provide exemptions for people to enter on those bases, and that’s been happening for the last two years. So there’s no change to that arrangement. The Victorian government made their decision on that. And so I’d have to refer to the Victoria government about their reasons for doing so.”
Federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman called the decision “a disgrace”.
“It is a slap in the face to every Australian who has been doing the right thing and following health orders – particularly those who have been returning from overseas and making sure they are fully vaccinated. The exemption must be rescinded if the credibility of the Australian Open and more importantly the rules we have in place for travel are to be protected,” he said.
TA defended the integrity of the review mechanisms run by the national and Victorian governments. “I feel great confidence in the process because I thought I might have to stand up in forums like this and explain the process,” said Dr Broderick.
“We spent a long time, you know, making sure that it was fair and rigorous, and [by] appointing experts in the field – immunology, infectious diseases [and] general practice.
“The panel didn’t even know whether these people were players, whether they were other player support people [or] partners.
“They were totally de-identified when they were making their decisions. Country of origin was also redacted from the documents … except in cases where age was important, date of birth was redacted.
“Once the decisions have been made, then the official documents have to be reviewed that are identified so we can put it in the IR [Australian Immunisation Register].”
Mr Tiley said there was “no special opportunity granted to Novak”.
“If they didn’t meet the guidelines, and there were many that didn’t, so therefore they were rejected, but if they met the guidelines including for example – which a lot of people forget – is one of those conditions is having COVID recently, in the past six months,” Mr Tiley said on Nine.
“Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There’s been no special favour. There’s been no special opportunity granted to Novak.”
Mr Tiley later elaborated, saying Tennis Australia had gone “above and beyond” Australia’s usual requirements to ensure unvaccinated players coming into the country have legitimate exemptions.
“The process has been very clear and we completely understand and empathise with, first of all, some people being upset about the fact that Novak has come in because of his statements over the past couple of years around vaccination,” he said.
“However, it’s ultimately up to him to discuss with the public his condition if he chooses to do that, and the reason why he received an exemption.”
Ms Pulford said while some people would see Djokovic being allowed into the country as a “disappointing outcome”, “the process is the process”.
“So I want to recognise and acknowledge that this outcome is something that many in the Victorian community find frustrating and upsetting, but I want to make absolutely clear that as has been the case the whole time, no one is or will be receiving special treatment because of who they are or what they have achieved professionally,” Ms Pulford said.
Britain’s Jamie Murray said: “I don’t know what to say about that really. I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption. Well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”
Australia’s top-ranked man Alex de Minaur said: “I just think it’s very interesting. That’s all I’m going to say. I heard there were other cases as well that got exemptions. I just hope they all fit the criteria.”
Russian player Natalia Vikhlyantseva was unable to travel to Australia due to her vaccine, Sputnik V, not being recognised by Australian authorities.
With Cassandra Morgan