An explosive email sent by Australia’s federal health minister warned Tennis Australia that a previous Covid infection would not see players granted a vaccine exemption, an oversight believed to have locked Novak Djokovic in a bitter legal dispute.
The world’s best tennis player touched down in Melbourne late on Wednesday night to compete for a record 10th Australian Open title, only to be informed his medical exemption was not sufficient.
Djokovic now faces deportation back home, and is under police guard in a hotel in the CBD while his lawyers fight for his right to play.
Now the letter sent by Greg Hunt to Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley at the end of November has emerged, showing the health minister warned Australian Open officials that a recent infection would not grant players an 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,’ Mr Hunt wrote.
‘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.’
Explosive emails from Health Minister Greg Hunt to the CEO of Tennis Australia prove the organisation had sufficient warning Novak Djokovic would not be granted entry to Australia
A letter sent by Greg Hunt to Craig Tiley at the end of November shows the health minister warning Australian Open officials that a recent infection would not grant players an exemption
Mr Hunt specifically reiterated to Mr Tiley that ‘major sporting events’ were at the mercy of ‘relevant jurisdiction’
Mr Tiley had previously written to Mr Hunt and the health department for clarity on unvaccinated entrants, with the Tennis Australia boss receiving two separate and crucial replies.
The letters, obtained by NCA Newswire, prove the federal government had given Australia’s tennis officials significant time to inform Djokovic and other tennis players hoping to enter unvaccinated.
The 34-year-old world no.1 had believed an infection within the last six months would allow him to skip jab requirements, but Mr Hunt said only ATAGI’s definition of fully vaccinated would see players pass through the border.
‘At this time, decisions to to support travel requests into Australia are carefully assessed by the Australian Border Force,’ he wrote.
‘The key consideration in the Commonwealth granting travel approvals including quarantine and flight arrangements, is to ensure returning Australians are not displaced and and that the general Australian community is protected from unnecessary health risk.’
Mr Hunt said only ATAGI’s definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ would see players pass through the border, which does not include an infection within the past six months
KEY QUOTES FROM GREG HUNT’S LETTER
- 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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘I encourage sporting organisations, including Tennis Australia, to continue to work with the Australian Border Force, state and territory health authorities and venues on Covid-safe plans for events, including for international travel where this is relevant.’
Mr Hunt specifically reiterated to Mr Tiley that ‘major sporting events’ were at the mercy of ‘relevant jurisdiction’ and that Tennis Australia should be ensuring they are working alongside Australian Border Force officials to ensure players were eligible to enter.
‘We encourage travellers to consult the requirements the state or territory they wish to enter to compete in the Australian Open and summer series lead-in events, to ensure they can meet the relevant entry requirements,’ the health minister penned.
‘I encourage sporting organisations, including Tennis Australia, to continue to work with the Australian Border Force, state and territory health authorities and venues on Covid-safe plans for events, including for international travel where this is relevant.’
The email is littered with links to official advice from the ABF and ATAGI regarding entry information, with a final reminder from Mr Hunt that players should be encouraged to do their own homework.
‘Finally, it is important to note that each individual is responsible for ensuring they meet the requirements for travel to and within Australia,’ he stated.
It is not known whether Mr Tiley had any correspondence or communication with Djokovic or his team prior to the Serbian’s attempt to enter the country.
Mr Tiley also received another letter from Mr Hunt’s department, sent nearly two weeks earlier by the National Covid Taskforce First Assistant Secretary Lisa Schofield.
Djokovic now faces deportation back home, and is under police guard in a hotel in the CBD while his lawyers fight for his right to play
In the letter, Ms Schofield writes on behalf of two professors from ATAGI, also confirming that a recent infection does not constitute fully vaccinated status in Australia.
‘ATAGI notes that natural immunity from past infection is recognised in several countries, however ATAGI also notes the challenge of confirming past infection and uncertainties of the duration of protection,’ she wrote.
‘While evidence suggests past infection reduces the risk of reinfection for at least six months (and thus may be regarded as a temporary exemption for vaccination for a maximum of six months), ATAGI advises that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine (or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine) according to a recommended schedule is required in order to be considered fully vaccinated.’
The letters show that Mr Tiley, Tennis Australia and the Australian Open were fully aware that Djokovic’s basis for his exemption was invalid.
Whether that was relayed to the Serbian and his team remains to be seen, but he remains locked in a Melbourne hotel room while his legal team await a ruling from a federal court.
Mr Tiley also received another letter from Mr Hunt’s department confirming entry requirements for players would fall under ATAGI’s definitions of being vaccinated
Meanwhile, Djokovic’s sternest rival both for the Australian Open and the grand slam record, Rafael Nadal, took aim at the Serbian saying his decisions had consequences.
The Spaniard said he empathised with the situation of Aussies constantly being locked down throughout the pandemic and said Djokovic could have easily entered the country if he had simply gotten the jab.
‘It’s normal that the people here in Australia gets very frustrated with the case, because they have been going through a lot of very hard lockdowns… A lot of people were not able to come back home,’ Nadal told reporters.
Rafael Nadal said Djokovic ‘should have known better’ and could have easily entered to defend his title if he had simply gotten vaccinated
‘The only for me clear thing is if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open and everywhere, and the world in my opinion have been suffering enough to not follow the rules.
‘The only thing I can say is I believe in what the people who knows about medicine says. If the people says we need to get vaccinated, we need to get the vaccine, that’s my point of view.
‘I went through the COVID, I have been vaccinated twice. And if you do this, you don’t have any problem to play here. That’s the only clear thing.’
Without wanting to be drawn in on a personal attack on Djokovic, the world no.6 said the Serbian ‘should have known better’ than to travel to Australia without a valid exemption.
‘I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem… He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but there are some consequences,’ Nadal said.
‘Of course I don’t like the situation that is happening. In some way I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decisions.’
Without wanting to be drawn in on a personal attack on Djokovic, the world no.6 said the Serbian ‘should have known better’ than to travel to Australia without a valid exemption
It comes amid reports Tennis Australia granted medical exemptions to two other players which don’t meet the requirements, both of whom are now subjects of Border Force investigations.
Lawyers appearing for the world No.1 appealed to Judge Anthony Kelly to review the decision made by the Department of Home Affairs to deport him.
Djokovic’s barrister Nick Wood SC told the court on Thursday he was determined to find a way for his client to play in the Australian Open from January 17, and the visa issue is what is standing in his way.
‘The absence of a visa, if the cancellation decision is valid, is an insuperable obstacle to Mr Djokovic competing in the tournament,’ Mr Wood said.
Judge Kelly said he was prepared to sit late on the case to reach an outcome, and asked if the tennis star had a court to train on in the hotel he is being detained in.
It appears likely Djokovic will not be expected to return home tonight after all, as Christopher Tran, who is representing the government, said he does not consider it ‘in the interests of justice’ to make a hasty decision this evening.
He noted three different pathways that may be taken when the matter returns before the court at 6pm.
The hotel in Melbourne’s CBD where Novak Djokovic is currently being held under police guard as his legal team await a decision from a federal court
The first is the government may not oppose the injunction being sought by Djokovic’s lawyers – meaning he will be permitted to stay in the country while his legal team assess their options.
The second – and most likely – is that the government will seek to have Djokovic deported, but will be willing to wait until the matter can be dealt with at length before the courts on Friday.
The final pathway would be if the government did proceed in wanting to remove Djokovic from the country this evening or early tomorrow morning, meaning the judge would be required to make a decision on the injunction immediately.
‘I am strongly inclined to try to assist the parties in resolving this interim application today,’ Judge Kelly said before standing the matter down until 6pm.
Djokovic’s initial statement sparked widespread outrage given his refusal to confirm his vaccination status.
While he does not legally have to share the grounds of his alleged medical exemption, it’s understood doing so may have helped his case when entering Australia.
Medical exemptions are being approved by border force officers ‘regularly’, one source explained, adding it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume Djokovic met the criteria to qualify for a valid exemption.
But they said if he then refused to release the grounds of said exemption – particularly to officials at the border – ‘therein lies the problem’.
Djokovic’s initial statement sparked widespread outrage given his refusal to confirm his vaccination status (pictured with wife Jelena)
Upon touching down in Melbourne about 11.30pm on Wednesday, the outspoken vaccine critic was whisked away and interrogated by immigration officials.
By Thursday morning, Australian border force officials confirmed his visa had been cancelled.
Initial reports suggested the visa he was granted did not allow medical exemptions for the unvaccinated, but Mr Morrison later confirmed that regardless, no exemption was in place.
The multi-millionaire athlete was taken to the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s Carlton where dozens of immigration detainees are housed on bridging visa or as they await urgent medical care.
Just days ago detainees posted photos online allegedly showing maggots in the meals they had been served along with mouldy bread.
The facility has also been the scene of multiple fires and Covid outbreaks.
Judge Kelly, seemingly unaware, asked if the hotel had a tennis court Djokovic could practice on before the tournament as he awaits his fate.