How to avoid doing a Djokovic: Australia's Covid-19 travel rules

As Novak Djokovic departed Serbia for Melbourne, Australia, the tennis star casually tweeted that he had an exemption to play in the Australian Open. By the time he landed, on Jan 5, he’d unleashed the fury of the Australian public and was unceremoniously detained.

After four days in an immigration detention hotel – complete with bugs, filth and terrible food, according to his mother – Djokovic won a court case and is free to play in the tournament, which commences on Jan 17, unless the immigration minister finds new grounds to expel him.

Should he win, he’ll make history as the man with the most grand slam victories.

But how did Djokovic find himself in detention? Australia has strict rules on international travel, and requires visitors to be either fully vaccinated or to have an exemption from vaccination on medical grounds.

Djokovic did have an exemption of sorts, granted by Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria. But on arrival, Australia’s Border Force cancelled his visa. The Australian government argued that Djokovic’s exemption entitled him only to play in the tournament, not to actually enter the country.

His exemption was reportedly based on his recent Covid-positive status, and Border Force does not consider this a medical exemption from being vaccinated.

While Australian authorities and Djokovic’s lawyers bickered about the legality of the visa cancellation, one thing became clear. Travelling to Australia is still no slam dunk.

During the pandemic, Australia has fared better than many other countries. But despite a vaccination rate of 92 per cent, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is now running riot; case numbers cannot be accurately determined because of a lack of testing capacity, but more than 5,000 people are in hospital with the virus.

Nonetheless, Australia is starting to open to the world, albeit with a complicated set of rules. While many Australians stranded for more than a year overseas are finally finding their way home, most other would-be visitors are still locked out.

Getting to Australia

Australian citizens, permanent residents, the holders of particular Australian visas, and the immediate family members of these groups may now travel to Australia. But when it comes to tourists, Australia is only accepting arrivals from four countries deemed International Safe Travel Zones: Japan, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand.

Travellers without a medical exemption must be fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Sinovac, Bharat, Sinopharm and Johnson and Johnson.

Individual exemptions

In some circumstances, the Australian government may grant an individual exemption for a traveller to arrive. This may be issued to parents of citizens and permanent residents, or for escorting citizen minors to Australia.

Certain international students are being allowed back in, such as medical students who have a confirmed work placement in an Australian hospital. The commissioner for Australian Border Force can also grant individual travel exemptions on compassionate and compelling grounds, like the death or critical illness of a family member.

At least 72 hours before departure, every traveller must submit an Australian Travel Declaration, detailing travel in the previous 14 days and uploading their vaccination certificate. A negative PCR test is required before departure.

Skipping quarantine

Complicating arrival into Australia further, each of the eight states and territories has its own quarantine rules.

Arrivals into New South Wales (Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), the Northern Territory (Darwin) and the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) are now permitted to proceed straight to their accommodation once they’ve cleared all arrival checks. These travellers then take a rapid antigen test (RAT) or a PCR test and isolate until they receive a negative result. Another test will be required on about day six.

Travellers entering the country in another state – say, Western Australia (currently not accepting tourists) – are still subject to 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine at their own expense. Five Covid-19 tests must be conducted after arrival, on days one, five, 13, (in quarantine) and days 17 and 21 (post-quarantine).

Travel within Australia

Once travellers are in, things are not necessarily easier. The past two years have seen each state restricting and banning travel from other states, depending on their infection levels, and these have been subject to change at short notice.

Most states and territories have now done away with hard borders. But although Omicron is rampant , especially in New South Wales and Victoria, states with lower infection rates are still trying to slow the spread using entry requirements. Some states still require evidence of a negative Covid-19 test before allowing entry and issue permits through their own smartphone application.

Western Australia is refusing to open its borders to the rest of the country (and the world) until Feb 5. The flip side is that the state has been largely Covid-free, and sustained only nine Covid-19 deaths. However, the infection’s arrival is imminent, and Western Australia is already experiencing a small cluster of positive cases.

Australia’s response to Covid-19 is in rapid flux, as health care systems struggle to cope. Mandated testing before interstate travel is causing test shortages and, as a result, these rules, like all others, are under review.

Djokovic may escape deportation, but for most would-be travellers, watching the Australian Open on television will be the closest they’ll get to the country for a while.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.