Djokovic visa row: WHO says vaccine mandates should be ‘last resort’

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London: The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday said vaccination status should not be used to disqualify people from travelling internationally and that governments should only use vaccine mandates as a “last resort”.

The comments came in response to questions from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age about the ongoing row surrounding world’s No.1 men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic.

The World Health Organisation has cautioned against the use of vaccine mandates.Credit:AP

Only vaccinated people are currently eligible to enter Australia after the country’s border reopened on a limited basis late last year.

Australia and other jurisdictions around the world have also introduced vaccine passports to allow entry to major events, restaurants and other facilities. They are also now required to work in some professions.

Djokovic, who has refused to be vaccinated, successfully sought entry based on claims that a December COVID-19 infection qualified him for an exemption.

He was blocked by Australian Border Force officials, but a Federal Court Circuit overturned the cancellation of his visa. Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is now considering whether to use his discretionary ministerial powers to deport the Serbian.

Novak Djokovic is in Australia despite not being vaccinated.Credit:Mark Baker

The situation in effect means Australian Open spectators will have to be vaccinated to watch Djokovic, despite the player himself remaining unvaccinated.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said vaccine mandates should be used with caution and only when a government facing a severe outbreak had failed to persuade its population to get jabbed.

“We see mandates as a last resort … in the face of a large epidemic,” he said.

“So yes, there are circumstances in which vaccine mandates are supported by WHO but, again, it is subjected to the basic principle that the best way to get people vaccinated is to inform them, to educate, to have a dialogue and to address people’s genuine concerns.

“We always ask that those mandates be clear, be explicit, be time-limited and at the same time … governments continue to explain to people why they’re doing things and continue to try and convince people of the benefits of vaccine rather than reverting to mandates as a single approach.”

Director of WHO’s Department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals, Katherine O’Brien, added that no one should be denied access to international travel based on their vaccination status because not everyone in the world has the same access to vaccines.

“Free and full access to safe and effective vaccines is the absolute precondition before a mandate is made and that is a grounding principle,” she said.

“It’s also a grounding reason why there is not a requirement from WHO, a recommendation around any requirement for crossing international borders, although the status of somebody’s vaccination may be considered with respect to other conditions that may be imposed on people through the course of their travel.”

The World Health Organisation is concerned people without access to vaccines will be penalised by countries opting for vaccine mandates.Credit:Bloomberg

Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

While Djokovic won an exemption despite having ample access to vaccines, Australia’s strict stance nonetheless denied other players the opportunity to compete in the Australian Open.

Russian player Nata Vikhlyantseva said she was not able to travel to Australia because she received the Sputnik V vaccine, which has not been listed for emergency use by the WHO or recognised by Australian authorities.

“I just feel that I can also play and I’m ready for all the tests –just give me a chance to play,” she told Britain’s ITV News.

Seventeen-year-old Indian player Aman Dahiya, meanwhile, was denied an exemption to compete in the Australian Open junior event because he is not vaccinated – his country has not yet started vaccinating people under the age of 18.

Open organisers told Dahiya that he would not be able to compete unless he was vaccinated.

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