All Australian passports bear the words, ‘The Governor-General, being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance.’
This affords Australians free passage in almost every country in the world but not in the state of Victoria, as I discovered when I flew back to Melbourne from regional NSW on New Year’s Day, one of many who raced to meet the Premier’s deadline before the border snapped shut. I arrived at around 10am with 14 hours to spare but my initial sense of relief evaporated when we were greeted by an army of men and women in smocks, masks and face shields.
We had responded to the ‘come-home-now’ edict in good faith, some spending up to a thousand dollars on inflated air fares. Many had sought clarification and reassurance from government officials that they were interpreting the rules correctly however the coronavirus hotline had crashed.
When I told the officials at the airport that I had been in Sydney over Christmas, I was asked to take a seat for a moment until somebody more senior could speak to me. It would be hours before I learnt my fate.
Ranks of authorised officers, public servants on overtime, chatted cheerfully as they compared notes about how they had travelled to their shifts and whether they had worked at this or that terminal before.
I was given no food and bottled water was only distributed to us after some hours. Some were told that going to the bathroom would present a risk to the innocent public. I was allowed to go under guard, with a full-scale cleaning crew following in my wake.
When I asked how much longer we would be detained or who could answer questions, I was met with shrugs or referred to a mysterious manager who was attending to other passengers but was expected to return soon. A young couple who were being held with me made the decision to leave the terminal after officers blinked at them in response to repeated questions. They later handed themselves in to the police in Goulburn and are now subject to $38,000 in fines.
After a five hour wait, finally there was some action. A supervising authorised officer went from person to person, serving us each with detention notices.
‘You are a prohibited person’, the notice stated. We were off to mandatory hotel quarantine. Many protested; ‘Aren’t we meant to be isolating at home?’ Not if you’ve been in a red zone in the last fourteen days, we were told.
I asked to remain at the airport until an exemption could be considered, still believing that this was just a bad mix-up by the government. Others begged to return directly to NSW, where they had young children. The answer to all our queries was the same: ‘You have now been detained. You are a red zone arrival. Your only option is to go to the hotel. The officers there will help you ask for an exemption.’
At 4pm, we were sent onto the tarmac to board a SkyBus which would take us to the quarantine hotel. The only problem was that our luggage wasn’t ready. There followed a desperate standoff between the detainees and the bus driver. Many were desperate for the bathroom, food or water. A Type 1 diabetic had no medication and hadn’t eaten for hours.
The detainees got increasingly angry. The bus driver turned red under pressure. He repeatedly radioed the Department of Justice, asking if someone, anyone, could just come to the bus. Finally, the supervising authorised officer appeared, suitcase in hand, and loaded the luggage on to the bus, one piece at a time.
It was evening before the bus finally pulled up outside the stark grey brick airport hotel. An authorised officer boarded and began reading a prepared speech. When she informed us that we would each be required to contribute to the cost of our detention, the passengers erupted in protest. She yelled that the sooner she finished the speech, the sooner everyone could get off the bus.
In the lobby, the reception counter had been fitted with perspex and the hotel staff were clad in head-to-toe PPE. They welcomed me to the hotel politely, asking for my dietary requirements. I couldn’t believe what was happening, having sincerely expected a fortnight of home isolation. Once settled in my room, I remembered the authorised officer at the airport’s promise that officers at the hotel would facilitate our requests for exemption but officials at the hotel were bemused by the suggestion, referring me to an online exemption form which turned out to be only for international arrivals. Other officers suggested that the proper channel was to call the public coronavirus hotline but an unsympathetic operator told me that anyone in hotel quarantine had to go through the officers at the hotel. The Department of Justice said that the Department of Health and Human Services was in charge, while the DHHS referred me to the Department of Justice. It soon became clear that there was no system in place to review my detention. It hadn’t even been invented.
Compulsory detention in a hotel room, particularly when you aren’t expecting it, is distressing. I arrived without provisions or adequate clothing, while others had no medication. I had to fight to be allowed to receive a care package with some possessions from a family friend. Standing at the window, I could see planes landing and taking off, people arriving home and setting off in their cars unimpeded, a McDonald’s, from which delivery was prohibited, and an Australian flag on a pole hanging limply in the breeze.
On day three, after 11pm, a note was slipped under my door from the DHHS advising us that the case of returned residents in hotel quarantine was being actively reviewed and that I could expect a phone call from the DHHS to decide if I could complete the quarantine period at home. The system was swamped; not just by exemption requests from quarantine hotels but by almost 4000 stranded Victorians trying to cross the border and by international arrivals. Finally, on day six of my detention, the DHHS rang. On day eight, I was finally released.
The shambolic, insensitive and incompetent management of hotel quarantine for returned Victorian residents that started on New Year’s Day is a sad indictment of the authoritarian, faceless health bureaucracy that has now become ubiquitous.
Australian citizens are being forced to endure the cost of state governments’ panicked ‘lock up first, ask questions later’ approaches which comes dangerously close to stripping citizens of supposedly inalienable rights.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
The author is a resident of Victoria who wishes to remain anonymous.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10