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Could Novak Djokovic be barred from competing at Wimbledon?

Stories erupted yesterday about Novak Djokovic having his Australian visa revoked, potentially preventing him from participating in the Australian Open. The tournament begins on 17 January 2022, and Djokovic has won 9 times. Since the start of the Open era in 1969, Djokovic has won the men’s singles championships more than anyone else.

Here at Latitude Law, we don’t specialise in Australian immigration law, but news reports confirm that Djokovic had applied for a visa that does not allow for medical exemptions for being unvaccinated. He subsequently couldn’t prove that he met Australia’s entry requirements in relation to Covid medical exemptions and appears to have been refused entry pending an appeal. Djokovic’s team had thought a medical exemption had been granted – the outcome of this story is awaited with interest around the world, with many expressing a lack of sympathy with the Serbian’s plight.

Wimbledon is due to start on 27 June 2022; although I hope Covid has ceased to be a factor by then, it’s looking unlikely. So, could history repeat itself?  Is Djokovic likely to be refused entry to the UK for the UK’s major tennis championship if he remains unvaccinated?

First of all, to secure a UK visa, an individual is not required to be vaccinated or be medically exempt. This applies to every category of the Immigration Rules; whether applying as a family member, a worker or a professional sportsperson; no-one is required to provide any Covid-19 evidence with their application, it’s simply not part of the process.

What our Immigration Rules do contain are provisions relating to a passenger’s overall state of health. Paragraph 36 requires those arriving for more than 6 months to submit to a medical examination; in practice this rarely happens.  We have in recent years introduced pre-departure TB testing for those resident in specified countries around the world. In the case of short-term entry, a Border Force officer has a discretion – “which should be exercised sparingly” according to the Rules – to refer an arrival for medical examination at port.

None of these immigration requirements have been explicitly extended to Covid. The UK has instead legislated separately, introducing separate entry rules to deal with Covid-19 which apply to everyone – British citizens, those who are settled and those who hold a temporary visa. These rules are subject to quick changes, and will likely be very different by the time Wimbledon begins, so those travelling to the UK should ensure they check rules in force at date of travel.

Briefly, for those like Djokovic who are not fully vaccinated, Covid-19 tests are required before travelling to the UK and following arrival. Unvaccinated individuals will also need to isolate for 5-10 full days depending on what tests are taken following arrival to the UK. Medical exemptions exist for those who are unable to be vaccinated and tested for coronavirus. Securing a medical exemption could potentially mean an individual arriving in the UK wouldn’t need to self-isolate, but exemptions are limited. An individual could qualify for an exemption if they were receiving end of life care and vaccination isn’t in their best interests; if they have learning disabilities; if they have severe allergies to all currently available vaccines; or if they had an adverse reaction to their first dose. Guidance online indicates that other medical conditions could also enable an individual to be medically exempt, but whether they qualify will depend on the extent of the condition.

Here in the UK, we have different isolation rules for elite sportspeople; these were introduced due to the sporting events ongoing in the UK, including football. For certain recognised events, international athletes and essential staff can isolate within the event’s facilities. This will enable them to take part in the tournament, even if this falls within their isolation period. Wimbledon isn’t currently recognised, but I’d imagine it would be in the future.

To participate in Wimbledon, professional tennis players such as Djokovic are likely to travel as standard visitors. Visitors are able to take part in sports tournaments in the UK, either as an individual or as part of a team. Although standard visitors cannot receive payment from a UK source for their activities in the UK, they can receive prize money, so Djokovic would still be entitled to receive this.

As a Serbian, Djokovic is a visa national, so he would need to secure a visit visa prior to travel. However, he wouldn’t need to provide any Covid-19 evidence to support his application. He would, of course, need to ensure he declares his Australian entry refusal on his application; failure to declare this could result in him facing a UK travel ban for 10 years.

Assuming his UK visit visa is granted, Djokovic could then travel to the UK. He and his team would simply need to ensure that the Covid travel conditions that exist at the time of travel (the above are subject to change) are met prior to their arrival to the UK.

If you would like to discuss your UK visa requirements with one of our experts, call us on 0161 234 6800 or complete our online enquiry form. Please note that we can only provide advice about Covid-19 travel restrictions to our existing immigration clients.