Ombudsman: Border permits were ‘downright unjust, even inhumane’

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Victoria’s “unjust” border permit scheme that locked thousands of people out of the state resulted in some of the most questionable decisions Ombudsman Deborah Glass has seen in her career, with Department of Health staff given as little as 30 seconds to categorise desperate applications.

In a report tabled in the Victorian Parliament on Tuesday, the Ombudsman called on the Andrews government to acknowledge the distress caused by the system which she believed focussed on blocking people out during Sydney’s Delta outbreak of COVID-19 rather than helping them get home safely.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. Credit:Penny Stephens

Ms Glass did not criticise the decision to close the state border during the outbreak — which ultimately led to Melbourne’s sixth lockdown and an acceptance the elimination strategy was unsustainable — but said discretion applied under the blunt system was unnecessarily narrow and left people effectively homeless.

Just 20 staff were responsible for the permit scheme in early July, scaled up to 285 by early September. Those tasked with categorising and prioritising applications had between 30 seconds and one minute to do so.

Only 8 per cent of the 33,252 applications were granted in the period July 9 to September 14 this year, when the Ombudsman began her investigation.

In that time, 2649 applications were made to attend a funeral or be with a loved one in their final moments. Only 877 were granted. Another 10,812 were made for health and compassionate reasons, with 895 granted.

“People’s anguish when they spoke to us was palpable,” Ms Glass said.

“I recognise that the Department of Health’s intentions were to protect people in Victoria from a dangerous virus that had already seeded through cross border incursion, and that the Department was under enormous pressure dealing with the exigencies of the public health emergency.”

Among the 315 complaints received, Ms Glass heard from people paying double rent with no income and a farmer afraid of having to put down her flock when she couldn’t get home. In one case, a woman was asked why she could not put her intellectually disabled sister in aged care while she was unable to be her carer. Another woman lost her new job because she was unable to relocate to begin work.

Victoria’s traffic light system, introduced in January, required people to obtain a permit to enter the state based on the public health risk of other parts of the country.

Parts of Sydney were delegated a “red zone” in late June and COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar urged all Victorians in New South Wales to return home on July 10, with the entire state declared a red zone a day later.

On July 20, the government tightened the border again in a move which ended the right to return home from a red zone. People entering Victoria would need to qualify for a compassionate exemption.

All of NSW was declared a new category of “extreme risk” three days later on July 23, blocking thousands of people from entering Victoria.

Ms Glass accepted the government had explicitly warned Victorians interstate that border rules could change, but said people were reasonably relying on the traffic light system that allowed some restricted movement and people did still need to cross borders during a pandemic.

The guidelines did not evolve with Victoria’s growing outbreak, Ms Glass said, and persisted even once Premier Daniel Andrews abandoned the elimination strategy in late August.

“The result was some of the most questionable decisions I have seen in my over seven years as Ombudsman,” Ms Glass said.

“The effect of a complex and constrained bureaucracy meant some outcomes were downright unjust, even inhumane. People felt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare.”

She said public health officials were working hard in an especially tough job during the pandemic. But she said: “If there is a next time – we cannot let this happen again.”

The Ombudsman has recommended the government publicly acknowledge the narrow exercise of discretion resulted in unjust outcomes.

Ms Glass also recommended the government improve policy and guidance for such schemes and consider payments on applications to help cover the financial cost for people who cannot return home.

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