Premier League footballers who refuse to get Covid vaccinations will effectively be barred from playing some matches under a rule change being pushed by the Culture Department.
Under the current rules, unjabbed elite sportsmen who return to the UK from abroad can break the obligatory 10 days of self-isolation to attend training or compete at events.
But The Telegraph can reveal that Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, wants to end that exemption, which allows sports stars to be treated differently to members of the public.
It would mean that Premier League clubs that play in European competitions would be unable to select unvaccinated players in the days after their return to the UK.
Scores of other unjabbed professional athletes could be impacted, with rugby, golf and cycling competitions often involving frequent international travel.
A government source familiar with the discussions said: “If you want to have special treatment you’ve got to do your bit to keep others healthy and safe. Getting vaccinated isn’t only about your health but others.”
Premier League executives have been braced for possible rule changes and are expected to push back, arguing that the current exemptions pose little threat to health given the stringent testing regimes in place.
The developments come after the Australian authorities blocked world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic from entering the country to defend his Australian Open title because he was unvaccinated.
Djokovic spent Orthodox Christmas in an Australian immigration hotel on Friday as he broke his silence for the first time since being detained.
“Thank you people from around the world for your continuous support,” he said on Instagram. “I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”
Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, posted a photo on Instagram of the couple embracing on a beach to mark Orthodox Christmas, saying “the only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being”.
Boris Johnson has adopted increasingly critical language towards anti-vaxxers, this week criticising their “mumbo jumbo” rhetoric and saying it was “absolutely crazy” people were ending up critically ill after refusing the jabs.
The Prime Minister is under pressure from Tory backbenchers sceptical of lockdowns who argue the freedom of Britons who get jabbed should not be curtailed to protect those who have willingly turned down the chance to get vaccinated.
Under the Government’s current travel rules, unvaccinated people who arrive in the UK have to self-isolate for 10 days and get PCR test on day two and day eight. They can also choose to get a day five test and leave self-isolation if negative.
Exemptions for “elite sportspersons” are available, both those who live in the UK and those who live overseas. The exemptions means they have to abide by the above rules, but can leave self-isolation to train or compete.
It is understood Ms Dorries, whose department runs the exemptions, does not want to change the exemption for overseas sportsmen. Doing so would complicate foreign sports teams competing in Britain and undercut the UK’s hosting of tournaments.
However, she is minded to end the exemption for domestic sportsmen. It would mean that unjabbed athletes returning from overseas would have to self-isolate for the full 10 days, or a few days less if they choose to take a day five test which is negative.
Djokovic’s parents both spoke out against Australia’s decision to deny him entry Credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP
European matches could mean players miss domestic fixtures
The change could cause serious disruption for Premier League clubs. Some 16 per cent of Premier League players – around one in six – have still not had a single Covid vaccination dose, according to statistics released by the league last month.
It would mean clubs competing abroad in the Champions League or Europa League during the week may have scores of players unavailable to them for Premiership matches the following weekend.
The Culture Secretary’s proposal is in its early stages of being worked up and has not yet been signed off by the Cabinet or Downing Street, with the Prime Minister likely to have the ultimate say on whether it goes ahead.
France and Italy announced last month that all professional sportspeople living there would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The French government confirmed on Friday this would not apply to non-residents. Italy has yet to confirm its own plans for the latter.
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Throughout the pandemic we have put in place measures to allow international sport to continue, while at the same time protecting public health.
“We have exemptions for domestic and international sportspeople to leave self-isolation for specified events, but only to train or to compete. They must self-isolate at all other times, and must follow strict protocols in the operation of these events.
“We are committed to international sport continuing and will review the exemptions regime to ensure it is operating effectively and fairly.”