When Australian immigration officials rejected tennis star Novak Djokovic’s medical exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement and cancelled his visa, they set off a storm of ramifications – bureaucratic, political and legal.
The world’s top male tennis player spent four days in a Melbourne immigration detention hotel among asylum seekers and refugees before Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly upheld his appeal and ordered him released and his visa reinstated.
Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke now must make the politically charged decision of whether to use his authority to overturn the judge’s ruling.
But what has happened in the last few days and what seems likely to take place ahead of the tennis tournament?
Where to now?
First, a better class of accommodation. When the judge ruled in his favour on Monday, Djokovic was immediately released from Melbourne’s Park Hotel to join his team at an upmarket apartment for the rest of his Australian stay.
Djokovic quickly headed to the Australian Open venue, Melbourne Park, for a late-night training session. He also trained on Tuesday, suggesting his sights are still firmly set on his bid for a 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Hawke is to decide on Djokovic’s fate on Wednesday.
Another issue under scrutiny is whether Djokovic might have incorrectly filled out his travel entry form when he ticked a box to indicate he had not travelled in the 14 days prior to his arrival in Australia on January 6. In fact, Djokovic did travel to Spain to train in that period.
What did the court say?
Perhaps the key to the whole affair and the hardest question to answer is whether Djokovic has a valid claim to a medical exemption to enter Australia while unvaccinated.
Tennis Australia, the Victoria state government and the federal government have differing views.
Before leaving for Australia, Djokovic had been coy on his vaccination status. When interviewed at Melbourne Airport by border officers early Thursday morning, he admitted he was not.
His application for a medical exemption to the rule that all non-Australian arrivals must be vaccinated was based on his claim that he tested positive to COVID-19 on December 16.
Medical panels established by Tennis Australia and the Victoria government granted Djokovic exemption from vaccination to play at the Australian Open on that basis. Djokovic’s lawyers argued that he had every reason to believe the same standard applied at the border.
What was the case?
Djokovic was quick to welcome the court’s decision. During his four days in immigration detention he tweeted only once, to thank his fans for their support.
Early on Tuesday morning, he tweeted again to express gratitude that the court had upheld his case.
Questions remain about Djokovic’s recent positive test. He had a PCR test on December 16 and received his positive result that night but was reportedly seen in public for the next few days.
Role of politics
Djokovic arrived in Melbourne as it faced record daily numbers of COVID-19 cases. Numbers also were increasing across Australia because of the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government was facing criticism for relaxing some virus restrictions as Omicron cases began to spike and for not making rapid antigen tests readily available.
Morrison had little to say when Tennis Australia and the Victoria government upheld Djokovic’s application for a medical exemption. But when Djokovic’s visa was cancelled, he was quick to own the decision, sensing public approval.
He tweeted “rules are rules” and repeated that in interviews on subsequent days. At first, it seemed a certain political win.
Australia’s strict border controls during most of the pandemic separated families by preventing Australians living overseas from returning home.
The possibility that one of the world’s most feted athletes and prominent vaccine sceptics might receive special treatment at the border was one Morrison could not countenance.