Australia’s Border Wars Have Become Chaotic, Confusing, and Cruel
The Victorian government gave its citizens hours to return, without providing the necessary information or infrastructure to support them through 14 days of isolation. Then they faced a total lack of sympathy from fellow Victorians.
A month ago, I was looking forward to enjoying Christmas with my family in Sydney — after a pretty tough year that was mostly spent in strict lockdown in Melbourne. With a border closure between Victoria and NSW that lasted for months, I hadn’t seen my mother, siblings, nieces, or nephews since rushing back home from Sydney in March.
There was an overwhelming sense of deja vu from that trip when Premier Daniel Andrews announced suddenly on 20th December that any Victorians in Sydney had to return before midnight. If they came back within the next 24 hours after that, they would have to isolate at home for 14 days. And after that, they would be required to quarantine in a hotel.
I, obviously, don’t have the scientific background to speak to whether someone who crosses a border at 11.59 pm is less likely to carry a virus than a person who crosses it at 12.02 am — or the evidence for why only the latter should self-quarantine for two full weeks. There are plenty of Victorians who support a hard border closure for a Covid outbreak that at its peak reached 18 new cases a day.
I can only tell you what happened next.
When Daniel Andrews made the announcement around 11am, I calculated how long it would take me to drive to the border, my level of fatigue, and the fact that I might not get across in time anyway — and decided to spend one evening with my family who I’d come all that way to see. At the rate our border opens and closes, who knows when I will be able to see them again?
I drove down the next day, knowing I would have to spend Christmas and New Year’s in isolation — although the information given by news outlets was wildly inconsistent.
After queuing for over three hours at the border, my passenger and I finally arrived at the “checkpoint” which was a single policeman peering in the windows of the cars while dozens of others stood around. Inexplicably, all lanes of the highway were merged into one so that we were in single file — resulting in several kilometres of traffic.
The policeman glanced at my permit, didn’t check my passenger’s, then told us we would have to self-quarantine until we received our test results. After midnight, you have to isolate for 14 days.
This information was delivered so ambiguously — How can we isolate until we receive test results and for 14 days? Did he mean that only people arriving after midnight had to do the 14 days? — that we asked him to clarify. He impatiently waved us on, telling us to check the DHHS website. At that time, there was no information about returning Victorians mentioned anywhere on the DHHS website.
From leaving my mother’s home at 8.30am, it was 12 hours before I was back in Victoria. I was exhausted, and had planned to spend the night somewhere close to the border so I could recuperate and travel on to Melbourne the next day.
Except — I realised that, because I was supposed to be isolating, I would have to continue driving for another three hours to get home. I stopped frequently to drink more coffee and splash cold water on my face, but regardless, by midnight I still had an hour to go and my eyes were closing. I had been on the road for almost 17 hours.
Victoria’s Covid-19 commander has since said he sees no issue with someone doing the 10 hour drive from Queensland through New South Wales to Victoria only having two 15-minute breaks. This advice is contrary to road safety guidelines which recommend at at least a 15-minute break every couple of hours. If they took this many breaks, they could not reach the Victorian border before it closed.
With so many exhausted drivers, I am honestly surprised there were no fatalities on the road that night.
I called the DHHS the next day and confirmed I had to isolate for 14 days even after two negative tests (on Day 1 and Day 11). My friend who travelled with me was told the opposite at her testing site. I was also informed that I had to isolate from my partner, wear a mask in communal areas of the house, and could not leave the property to exercise or walk my dog. I had not been aware of any of these restrictions when I decided to leave Sydney.
Still, I was certain I had made the right choice — especially when, 10 days later, the state government ordered Victorians to return from all of NSW, giving them approximately the same 36 hours’ notice that we received. And yet, they failed to prepare for 60,000 more people desperate to cross the border before the completely arbritrary deadline of midnight to avoid 14 days of self-quarantine. Thousands of Victorians spent New Years’ Eve in six or seven hour queues, only to not have their permits checked and not be given clear or accurate information about the requirements.
As with our border queue just ten days earlier, no preparation had been made for a very foreseeable problem: where would people go to the bathroom? (So foreseeable, in fact, that at least four people have now asked me about this…) There was nowhere to pull off the highway, no bushes for cover. Men relieved themselves at the side of the road, women had to leave their cars unattended in the queue to escort children as far as possible.
A friend who travelled on New Year’s Day was told by police at the border that they would not be enforcing the 14 day self-quarantine period and that it was a “DHHS recommendation” only. She did not know whether this was the official position or one burned-out border policeman. She is self-quarantining anyway, but unable to receive sick leave from work — and for several days could not reach the DHHS by phone to confirm exactly how long her isolation period should be.
Because we had to be tested on Day 1 and Day 11, the first day of 2021 coincided as a testing day for both people who returned when I did and the additional 60,000 from the previous day. I waited over three hours for my Covid swab — and I was lucky. Many people reported being turned away from several testing sites as they were at capacity even before they had officially opened. My friend waited for five hours inside a room of some hundreds people all with Covid symptoms, while DHHS staff conducted contact tracing on every single person being tested — even though it turned out that none of them actually had the virus.
When the government ordered tens of thousands of Victorians into isolation, why did they not prepare to meet the massive testing requirements that they themselves have imposed?
By the last few days of my self-quarantine, I began receiving text messages from the DHHS, requiring me to “check in”. These continued even after my 14 day period was over. On Day 15 — which should have been my first day out of quarantine — I still hadn’t received clearance from the DHHS. When I called, they said were working through a backlog and would email me clearance in the next couple of days. I was not permitted to leave quarantine without it. If a policeman stopped me, they could fine me thousands of dollars on the spot, even though my 14 days were over.
This meant that what was supposed to be a 14-day quarantine was, in actual fact, an indefinite quarantine until the DHHS could get its act together. I can not begin to tell you the impact this has on one’s mental health after spending the entire Christmas period alone. And what of people who planned to go back to work the day after they were supposed to finished their 14 days?
On Day 16, I received a phone call from the DHHS to ask for my email address — good news, they were sending me clearance! The DHHS has been emailing me for two weeks, so I could not understand how they did not have my email address. The polite man on the other end of the phone checked the database again and said they didn’t. He also asked if I’d had my second Covid test, even though I‘d already confirmed this with the DHHS who were the ones who sent me my negative test result in the first place.
What’s more, I’ve been referred to as a “close contact” through the last few weeks of correspondence — even though I was not exposed to anyone with Covid, and was nowhere near a single listed case location. If I was still in Sydney, I would not be in any sort of lockdown. If I so wished, I could attend a cricket match with 10,000 Sydneysiders. My mother, who I was staying with, just went on holiday. Even if I lived in the Northern Beaches, where this cluster began, I could go out to exercise or meet with five friends.
And yet, despite the Covid outbreak being in another state and testing negative twice, I am the one who spent my holidays alone and shut in my bedroom.
While I am deemed a “close contact” when it comes to my restrictions, I have found out that the DHHS does not consider me a “close contact” in terms of eligibility for the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment. Yes, I must isolate for 14 days but no, I can’t get financial support because I wasn’t exposed to anyone with Covid — even though I have to follow all the same rules as if I was. How can the government have it both ways?
I am extraordinarily fortunate to have an employer who gave me sick leave, but my friend will be unpaid for her period of quarantine — as, no doubt, will many thousands of other Victorians.
More concerningly, this means we can not count on the government’s financial support the next time we are put in 14-day self-quarantine because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Quite simply, many people without a compassionate boss will be unable to afford it. My friend is afraid to go out at all, in case she ends up visiting another place that is suddenly declared a hotspot (she was in Newcastle in NSW, which has zero Covid cases).
But what is most alarming is that the “all in it together” attitude has completely disappeared. Victorians who, I’m guessing, don’t have family in NSW they might not see for another year, have been incredibly smug towards people who “made a bad choice”. If supporting Daniel Andrews means defending every single decision his government makes (and for many, it does), then returning Victorians are “covidiots” who do not deserve any sort of sympathy.
Like clockwork, #mychoicesaredansfault began trending on Twitter — as a public outpouring of scorn was heaped on people who seized the small window of opportunity to visit their families in NSW. You brought it on yourselves! shouted the self-righteous Victorians who got to spend Christmas on the beers with their own families in Melbourne.
When I asked on Twitter why there was no clarity around whether or not people could stop and rest for the night, I was immediately jumped on by Daniel Andrews’ supporters. Why didn’t you just sleep in your car?
But is that really the choice that the government is offering citizens: keep driving while absolutely exhausted or sleep in your car in the middle of nowhere? How is that a safer option, particularly if you are a woman travelling alone or with children?
Anyone who has dared to speak out about their experiences has become the target of a vicious backlash. The family who opted for hotel quarantine, only to learn that the Victorian government never intended it as an option but as a “deterrent?” Selfish and arrogant. The woman with a permit who was wrongly turned away at the border and suffered a miscarriage in a ditch? A “Karen”. The thousands of Victorians now stranded in NSW with absolutely no way of returning home. How dare you blame Daniel Andrews for your poor decisions?
I am (mostly) grateful for the way Australia has approached the pandemic, and, in particular, for the phenomenal success the Victorian government has had in virtually eliminating Covid in our state. I understand what is at stake for Victorians — I know we cannot risk another lockdown.
But this is just a mess. With rules that are changing from one hour to the next, most Victorians are doing their very best to comply — as we have done through two lockdowns in 2020.
It is hard enough to spend 14 days in isolation, especially over the Christmas period, without adding chaos, confusion, and cruelty. If we are expected to follow restrictions to keep Covid under control, then people need to feel confident that they will receive support — both from the government and from our fellow citizens.
Unfortunately, the tens of thousands of Victorians who have just been placed in sudden confinement received neither.