'It's an absolute disgrace and I won't be watching it' - Australians react after Novak Djokovic was granted a medical exemption from a Covid vaccine to play at the Australian Open
Novak Djokovic’s participation at the Australian Open is under fresh doubt after the Victorian government said it would not support his visa application.The tennis world number 1 arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday afternoon, amid an intense backlash to the decision to grant him a medical exemption from a Covid vaccine which would enable him to defend his crown at the Australian Open later this month.
Djokovic, who has repeatedly refused to say whether he has received the coronavirus vaccine, attempted to enter the country on a visa that does not allow medical exemptions for being unvaccinated, according to reports.
It was said that Border Force then contacted government officials in Victoria to sponsor the visa, but they refused to do this.
Jaala Pulford, Victoria state’s acting minister for sports, said the state government will not provide the tennis star with individual visa application support to participate in the Grand Slam tournament, which starts in Melbourne on January 17.
Earlier on Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Djokovic "must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons" to gain entry into the country.
"If that evidence is insufficient, then he won't be treated any different to anyone else and he'll be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever," he told a media conference.
The Australian minister for home affairs Karen Andrews, meanwhile, suggested the federal government could potentially block the star's entry into the country.
She said that anyone who was arriving unvaccinated must show proof of their medical reasons for exemption in order to enter Australia without a travel exemption or they will have to go through quarantine.
The Victoria state government has said all players, staff and fans attending the event must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.
On Tuesday, Djokovic announced he had been granted "an exemption permission" to travel to Australia, with tournament organisers later issuing a statement confirming he will be allowed to compete.
But the news prompted an immediate backlash from many Australians, who have had to endure some of the world's strictest restrictions, with the country's border only re-opening in November.
Medical experts are among those who have expressed their disapproval at Djokovic's exemption.
Dr Stephen Parnis, an emergency consultant, who works at two hospitals in Melbourne, said he was "appalled" at the decision, saying it weakens public health messaging around vaccinations.
"I think it undermines the efforts of millions of Australians who have really suffered and taken responsibility for not only their health but that of the entire community by: enduring lockdown, by seeking and having a series of vaccinations," Mr Parnis, the former vice president of the Australian Medical Association, told ITV News.
'This sends a terrible message to our community,' Dr Parnis said
"We see Novak Djokovic come in with exemptions despite actively undermining, really, the case for vaccination around the world and we say this sends a terrible message to our community as well as the worldwide population."
He went on to describe how the highly infectious Omicron variant has "taken hold" across the country, with the exception of Western Australia, and is putting immense pressure on hospitals and causing staff shortages.
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Adding to the chorus of criticism, social media users described the devastating impact not being able to see relatives in Australia has had on them and their families.
Laura, from Scotland, said Djokovic's exemption was "infuriating".
"I haven't seen my brother and his family who live in Western Australia for two years, during that time our father died and he couldn't return to Scotland to attend the funeral," she wrote.
Another user said he could not go to his dad's or sister's funeral in Australia due to restrictions in place at the time.
Djokovic, who will look to defend his title in Melbourne, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against coronavirus.
But last April he said: "Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel."
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said: "Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone."
Tennis Australia said the process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants, meaning Djokovic was not obliged to make his exemption public.
In June 2020, the star tested positive for Covid in the wake of the Adria Tour events he helped organise in Serbia and Croatia.
The 34-year-old, who has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open, shares the men’s record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.