How Novak Djokovic’s Instagram post led to a messy saga

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If only Novak Djokovic had kept his mouth shut.

Throughout all of last year, the world’s No.1 tennis player was coy about his vaccination status. He insisted he was not anti-vax, only opposed to mandatory vaccination. Wherever asked, he refused to say whether he’d had the jab.

That changed on January 4, when Djokovic published an Instagram post of himself, bags packed, about to board a series of flights from Spain to Melbourne. “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission,” a smiling Djokovic declared.

An image from Novak Djokovic’s January 4 social media post in which he announced he was coming to Australia.Credit:Novak Djokovic/Instagram

On the other side of the world, in a country where ordinary people have endured severe disruptions to family life, work and any notion of play to keep COVID infections at bay, the revelation was met with a visceral public reaction. It also began a chain of events in Canberra which culminated in Friday’s extraordinary decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa and boot him out of Australia within three days of his first match.

In MP offices across the nation, electoral officers began hearing from angry constituents demanding to know how Djokovic had flouted the border rules. At the same time, government bureaucrats who knew what Tennis Australia had been repeatedly told about un-vaccinated tennis players were perplexed to read that Djokovic was on his way.

Djokovic was not arriving empty-handed. Along with a tennis bag stuffed with new racquets, he had a visa granted on November 18, a medical exemption approved by separate Tennis Australia and Victorian government expert panels, a travel declaration lodged on January 1 with the Federal Department of Home Affairs and a Border Travel Permit issued by the Victorian government.

Djokovic’s visa application did not require him to provide any details about his vaccination status. The travel declaration did, but these online forms involve minimal human checks. As the morning wore on and concerns about Djokovic were passed up the bureaucratic chain, a deep dive was launched into what information Djokovic was relying on to enter the country.

A sequence of phone calls between federal and Victorian government departmental officials and Tennis Australia left federal bureaucrats bewildered. They learned that the sole reason the nine-time winner of the Australian Open winner had been granted an exemption by Tennis Australia was a recent COVID infection.

“We thought, ‘surely this isn’t all he is relying on.’ TA had been told a prior infection was insufficient. We thought there must have been more because this clearly wasn’t enough to get into the country,” a federal source said.

At first, the government’s public response was cautious. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when asked to respond to Djokovic’s impending arrival during a morning doorstop, reiterated his view that any exemptions for tennis players were a matter for the Victorian government.

Novak Djokovic during a practice session at Rod Laver Arena on Friday.Credit:Eddie Jim

By mid-afternoon, after the federal government had received no new information from Victoria or Tennis Australia, its position hardened. They believed the Tennis Australia exemption, although endorsed by a Victorian government panel, carried limited weight at an Australian border.

There was also an irresistible political opportunity to make an example of a high-profile athlete who, despite coming to Melbourne every January, isn’t popular here; a classic “dead cat” distraction from more pressing political issues. At the very least, something clearly stunk.

At 3.17pm, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews issued a media release with the ominous headline: “Australia’s Border Rules Apply to Everyone.″⁣ It didn’t name Djokovic. It didn’t need to.

“While the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border,” Ms Andrews said.

At this point, with Djokovic’s final flight from Dubai nearing Australia, his only chance of entering the country without incident appeared to be if the Victorian government vouched for him. The Victorians say they were asked to sponsor Djokovic’s visa, the Federal government denies it ever made such a request but either way, it wasn’t something the Victorians were likely to do. As Premier Daniel Andrews had previously said, he couldn’t require people sitting in the grandstands at Melbourne Park to be vaccinated if the players weren’t.

Djokovic was now descending into the teeth of a global scandal. The Prime Minister’s media advisers were rostered on to work throughout the night to field questions from journalists. As soon as Djokovic’s plane reached the terminal, border officials came aboard to escort him and his support team out of their seats.

Thorny issue

Within Tennis Australia, no one was more surprised to learn of Djokovic’s medical exemption than chief executive and Australian Open tournament boss Craig Tiley. Although Tiley wanted the world’s best player and defending champion at Melbourne Park, he knew what it would mean if Djokovic tried to come here under a dodgy pretence and was turned around at the border.

This was the worst-case scenario that Tennis Australia desperately wanted to avoid.

For months, Tiley had been working to resolve the thorny issue of what to do with international tennis players who claimed to have a medical reason not to be vaccinated. He initially lobbied against a vaccine mandate for players and had become aware of a significant cohort – about one in every 20 players – who had recently had the virus and been told by doctors in their home countries to delay vaccination.

Not all these players were anti-vax. Some had had one jab and were waiting for a second shot. Others weren’t vaccinated at all. Either way, they appeared to have genuine claims that they could not be fully vaccinated for medical reasons.

When Tiley first wrote to the co-chairs of ATAGI on November 10 to raise the issue as a matter of urgency, Djokovic wasn’t part of this cohort. He’d been previously infected with COVID, at an ill-advised dance party in the early months of the pandemic, but there was no suggestion this had stopped him from getting vaccinated.

Djokovic did not apply for an exemption until late December, after an infection of exquisite convenience opened the door to him defending his Australian title. This was about six weeks after Tiley warned in a letter to ATAGI, the Australian government’s expert advisory group on vaccine policy, that the treatment of players unable to be fully vaccinated due to recent COVID infections “goes to the heart of the viability of the Australian Open”.

Had Tennis Australia accepted ATAGI’s initial response, written by National COVID Taskforce First Assistant Secretary Lisa Schofield, this entire saga could perhaps have been avoided.

Of all the correspondence released by Tennis Australia, the federal government and the Federal Circuit Court over the past 10 days, the Schofield letter of November 18 provides the clearest articulation of why a recent COVID infection, as far as both the Federal Department of Health and Border Force were concerned, is not a valid excuse for an international traveller not being fully vaccinated.

It states the ATAGI advice, now well familiar to anyone who has followed this episode, that “past infection with SARS-CoV-2 is not a contraindication to vaccination” and that, in Australia, people who recently recovered from COVID-19 should resume their vaccination schedule as soon as they are symptom-free.

It notes that medical opinion on this varies in different countries and in Australia, while a recent infection may be considered a temporary exemption from vaccination, this is not the same thing as being fully vaccinated. Schofield then adds an all-important kicker:

“ATAGI is not responsible for border control issues, however the Australian Border Force has advised that people must meet the fully vaccinated definition set by ATAGI to gain quarantine-free entry into Australia.” Lest there be any confusion, Schofield told Tennis Australia that no matter what the advice from their doctors, the cohort of players described by Tiley would not be allowed into Australia quarantine-free.

Competing narratives

Of course, the saga didn’t end there. There are two competing narratives about why it didn’t.

The first is that Tennis Australia, determined to get Novak Djokovic and other unvaccinated players to Melbourne Park, ignored what it had been told and kept shopping through state and federal government departments for the advice it wanted to hear. This is the prevailing Canberra view of why Djokovic and the Australian Open ended up in the mess they are in.

The alternative narrative, put forward by Tiley in an interview with this masthead earlier this week, is that Tennis Australia, like so many individuals and organisation who have tried to navigate the complex and sometimes contradictory bureaucratic edicts and blurred jurisdictions of our pandemic response, was doing its level best to sort all this out before Djokovic or any other tennis player boarded a plane.

The strongest evidence supporting the first narrative is that Tennis Australia, once armed with the Schofield letter and subsequent correspondence from Health Minister Greg Hunt reiterating her central point, did not pass this correspondence on to the Victorian government.

Federal Sports Minister Richard Colbeck said he had reviewed all the government’s correspondence with Tennis Australia and found no variance on the essential advice.

“There is nothing I can see that would indicate to TA that having COVID in the last six months was a medical contraindication,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “I don’t think we have given them that perspective at any point.

“The thing that completely flummoxes me is, if TA didn’t give to the Victorian government the advice that we gave, on what advice did the Victorian government confirm the exemption [to vaccination] that had been given by TA?

“Our advice was clear; having COVID in the last six months isn’t a reason for exemption.”

But even if TA did not pass that information to the Victorian government’s independent review panel, the group of infectious disease and public health experts on it should have known. Because, even though the identity of the panel members and the details of their deliberations are highly confidential, The Age and Herald have learnt that one member of the Victorian panel is also a member of ATAGI.

But the fact is, the ATAGI guidelines on prior infection, as published on the night of Djokovic’s arrival, are less clear than the federal government would have us believe. They state that prior COVID infection isn’t a contraindication to vaccination, but they also make allowance for a temporary exemption for up to six months from getting vaccinated if the person has been recently infected by COVID.

ATAGI former co-chair Allen Cheng said this week that this provision was intended to provide exemptions from domestic vaccine mandates and travel restrictions but had never been designed for international travellers because of the difficulty of confirming test results from other countries. “It wasn’t because of tennis players that that rule came about,” he said.

Confusion swirled around these three things: the ATAGI advice, the Tennis Australia medical exemption process and what guarantee either of these things provided to an unvaccinated tennis player trying to enter Australia. This confusion is why Tennis Australia kept pushing for more answers from the Department of Health, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and the Department of Home Affairs.

Throughout this protracted process, Tennis Australia’s government relations team held weekly meetings with a branch of Home Affairs that helps facilitate border entities associated with large groups and major events. On November 25, the meeting dealt squarely with the issue of unvaccinated travellers.

There is nothing in the documentation seen by The Age and Herald which suggests that the Border Force advice contradicted what Tennis Australia was told by the health departments but these discussions, held on video conferences, provided some comfort to the Tennis Australia officials in attendance.

A clue to Tennis Australia’s motivation throughout this saga can found in a detailed email sent by Andrew Godkin, one of the federal government’s most trusted sports advisers, to Tennis Australia, Department of Health and Home Affairs officials on November 17.

The email, informed by the advice of the relevant government departments, answers a series of questions that Tennis Australia, international players and the professional tours had.

But Tennis Australia wanted more. Fearful that athletes who arrived with the wrong documentation could be turned around at the airport, it had sought the help of Home Affairs, the government department with responsibility for international borders, to review documentation provided by the players both in advance and within 72 hours of their scheduled arrivals.

Home Affairs declined.

All documentation would be checked at departure and arrival, it said. Does this Tennis Australia request indicate an organisation intent on smuggling the unvaccinated into Australia in the dead of night, or one seeking to avoid that happening?

But whatever their plans and contingencies had been, they were doomed the moment Djokovic posted his inflammatory Instagram message. Had he kept quiet, it is likely he, like Czech female tennis player Renata Voracova and another Australian Open official, would have arrived at Tullamarine and passed through customs without any border officials challenging his documents.

It is now up to Djokovic and his team lawyers to again convince a judge that, having arrived in such contentious circumstances, he should still be allowed to stay.

with Anthony Galloway

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