Explainer: How did this border chaos kick off?

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Getty Images
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Getty Images

Countless people are stuck in limbo on the Victorian side of the border with NSW.

It happened because the regulations for entry to NSW were changed at very short notice.

On Thursday, the NSW government put out a statement saying: "Following updated health advice, NSW residents returning from Victoria must go into mandatory hotel quarantine for 14 days at their own expense.

On top of that, "all returning NSW residents, unless they live within the NSW border regions, will only be allowed to return to NSW through Sydney Airport".

The change then went into force at one minute after midnight on the same Thursday night.

There was no mention of how people whose permits suddenly became invalid should address the difficulty they then found themselves in, apart from the suggestion that they fly to Sydney and quarantine there.

Why was this a problem?

Countless people were travelling in Victoria towards the border with what were at the time valid permits which suddenly became invalid.

These travellers included those simply transiting through NSW to the ACT, but also some people from NSW who had gone over to Victoria and were planning to return (and who had permission to return - until they didn't).

In one case, a couple moving from Tasmania to Canberra got off the ferry in Melbourne at dawn on Friday and drove to the border. They say they learnt that their permit was no longer valid in an email they received 20 minutes before reaching the checkpoint. People arriving at the border on Friday say even the NSW police weren't clear on the situation.

And official advice was contradictory. Travellers say they were being told by Service NSW that the old permits were still valid when the police were telling them they weren't.

Why the haste?

The situation in Victoria had just worsened badly, and in a pandemic urgency is paramount - there is no point in the authorities saying they will instigate a border closure some time into the future. Infected people might just rush home to beat the deadline.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said: "I realise this may be difficult for some people, but the changing situation in Victoria means we must exercise extreme caution."

But the wider question is: was consideration given to the consequences on the border, not just for ACT citizens but for those of NSW?

And was the ACT consulted or even informed?

Meanwhile, on the border ...

People trying to get home to Canberra from Victoria were stuck in their cars or in motels, with no idea when they might leave (and when their motel bills would cease piling up).

Their confusion stemmed from advice which changed by the day.

The emails to the trapped people illustrate the switches in policy:

On Saturday, an email from ACT Health said: "If you wish to travel by car, you must cross the VIC/NSW border prior to 12.00 midday on Tuesday 11 August 2020. If you wish to enter the ACT after this date, you will have to fly".

But an email on Sunday said: "Unfortunately we are yet to hear anything from the NSW government. Please be assured that we will advise you all as soon as we know more, but it is unlikely to be tonight."

And then on Monday: "The issue may still take a few days to be resolved, and [we] suggest that if you are in Wodonga or the Wodonga region, that you find some accommodation for the coming days.

"We understand that the continued uncertainty may be causing some distress."

What about border communities?

There are special arrangements for the most essential workers who are "providing a critical service in the border region". There is a "bubble" within which cross-border workers can travel.

These include education workers, those caring for vulnerable people and "seasonal workers living in the border zone in Victoria and undertaking farm work in the border zone in NSW".

So there are people going back and forth daily, but the controls are tight. They need a permit with a QR code (that square code a bit like a barcode) which police can scan to monitor their movements.

What's the way out?

The only legal way is for the travellers to return to Melbourne and fly to Sydney, where they must stay in an approved quarantine hotel at their own expense.

This, clearly, is not practical for most people. It would mean them dumping their car and their belongings for an indeterminate time.

And it is not financially viable. One couple this reporter talked to estimated that the cost would be $6000, and that is not money they have.

There are negotiations between the ACT and NSW governments, but the best estimate of how long it will take to achieve a resolution is now days, perhaps with no agreement until the end of the week.

And the negotiations do not address the problem of NSW residents stuck on the wrong side of the border.

One farmer said he had a property in the Crookwell area on the Southern Tablelands of NSW, and he had 3000 sheep starting to lamb.

And the politics?

The handling of the epidemic has become political in Victoria, where the record of the Andrews government is under scrutiny.

It may now become political in NSW, the ACT and at the federal level.

There are some very angry people on the border.

"They just don't give a stuff about people," is typical of the comments passed on to this reporter.

Some of the victims are staying in cars because they can't afford a room at a motel. They will get angrier.

This story Explainer: How did this border chaos kick off? first appeared on The Canberra Times.