An interesting news report published by Burki in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine 25Th January 2022 reviews this topic.  

On January 17th 2022 the Australian Open tennis tournament began.  Notably absent was the champion Novak Djokovic.  He had had his visa cancelled and had been deported the day before he was due to start his titled events.  

The cancellation came at the behest of the Australian Immigration Minister, Alex Hawk, who stated that he made the decision “on the basis that was in the public interest”.  Novak Djokovic had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The world number one tennis player arrived in Australia with a medical exemption to the requirement that all foreigners entering the country have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  The exemption was granted by the state of Victoria, based on Djokovic having tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in December 2021.  However, this was not good enough to satisfy the Australian Border Force; they detained Djokovic after he arrived in Melbourne on January 5th 2022.  

His visa was subsequently cancelled.  The decision was reversed in a federal court five days later, only for the immigration minister to intervene.  

Hawke acknowledged that Djokovic was unlikely to pose a threat of infection but added that he is perceived by some as a talisman of a community of anti-vaccine sentiment. 

Allowing Djokovic to remain in Australia, Hawke went on to say, could potentially encourage other people to disregard or act inconsistently with public health advice and policies.

The decision will probably be popular.  One poll found 83% of Australians wanted the tennis star deported.  Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested “this might be the first time we have seen a general public push for vaccination with such ferocity”. 

Almost 80% of Australians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have endured one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.  Many were outraged by the impression that a multimillionaire was receiving special treatment from the immigration authorities.  Reports that Djokovic had failed to isolate after being infected with SARS-CoV-2 added fuel to the fire.

Djokovic himself has said little.  He insists on privacy as to his vaccination status and this also seems to extend to his views on vaccination.  It only became public that Djokovic had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 when the transcripts of his interview with the Australian Border Force were released.

In April 2020, several months before the COVID-19 vaccines appeared, Djokovic commented in a Facebook live chat that he was “opposed to vaccination and would not want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel”.  It remains his only public statement on the subject.  In Djokovic’s native Serbia, where he is a national hero, less than half the population have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  There is a great deal of vaccine scepticism and distrust of government in the Balkans though whether or not this has influenced Djokovic’s position on vaccination is a matter of speculation.

Nonetheless, Djokovic served as a UNICEF ambassador for the best part of a decade and it is hard to imagine he would be appointed to such a role, or indeed accept it, if he had qualms over vaccination in general.  

Still, there is a sizeable risk that his ejection from Australia will be exploited by those who seek to undermine efforts to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine.  It would appear that the problem now is that Djokovic is vulnerable to having an anti-vaccine message attached to him.

Djokovic’s refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine makes him something of an outlier on the men’s tennis tour.  Just three of the top 100 players have not been vaccinated. 

Coverage with the COVID-19 vaccines exceeds 90% for elite American football, basketball and ice hockey teams in the USA.  

The English Premier League has stated that 84% of its players have received at least one dose of the vaccine, although a slew of cancelled matches in December due to COVID-19 outbreaks suggests that there is still some way to go.  

Over 90% of footballers in the equivalent leagues of France, Germany and Italy are fully vaccinated.  

It was felt that athletes would be more susceptible to disinformation about COVID-19, although they might want to retain total control over their bodies, so that they would decline the vaccine, but this does not appear to have happened. 

The next major tennis tournament is the French Open, where Djokovic is the defending champion.  France have introduced a new law that will require anyone competing in a sporting event to be vaccinated against COVID-19.  

Australia is extremely unlikely to welcome Djokovic back into the country in 2023, unless he proves that he has been vaccinated.  In the Facebook live chat of April 2020 Djokovic said that if vaccination became compulsory, he would have to make a decision.  It looks as if this time has come.

The London General Practice, the leading London doctors’ clinic in Harley Street commends the National Health Service on its vaccination programme and encourages all those eligible to be vaccinated.

Dr Paul Ettlinger

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