Motorists rushed to cross the New South Wales border on Thursday night after Victoria announced plans to close it, with long queues of vehicles forming at checkpoints.
On New Year’s Eve Victoria’s acting premier, Jacinta Allan, announced the state would shut its border to all of NSW from 2 January, leaving people less than 48 hours to make it back and only hours to avoid two weeks of self isolation.
Travellers reported being stuck for up to seven hours in the darkness on roads waiting to cross checkpoints as Victoria tried to protect itself from a growing outbreak in NSW.
Those who made it across the border before midnight Thursday are required to get tested for coronavirus and self-isolate until receiving a negative result.
Anyone arriving from NSW to Victoria on Friday will need a border pass and will then have to self-isolate for 14 days. Victorians who miss that deadline will be turned back at the border or forced into hotel quarantine.
At Cann River, about 40km over the border in East Gippsland, Hop Inn Motel owner Barry Barker took 300 calls on New Year’s Eve from people looking for a place to stay. Calls were still coming in at 2am on Friday.
“People were desperate,” he said. “There was cars and boats and caravans with people just parked up and sleeping on the road. Wherever they could park they were stopping and sleeping.”
Barker’s 12-room motel is at the point where the Princes and Monaro highways join. He said he had not seen chaotic scenes like Thursday’s since he bought the business almost 20 years ago.
“Not even during the bushfires last year was it this bad,” he said.
Victoria’s health minister, Martin Foley, said on Friday: “I stood here some time ago and said reconsider going to NSW, don’t go to Sydney, reconsider going to NSW because the border can change quickly on the basis of public health advice, and we saw that happening yesterday.”
Victorians were told that if they were in the queue at midnight tonight but not across the border, they would be allowed to enter. Travellers were warned to be prepared with food and water.
Foley apologised to travellers stuck in traffic queues and warned there would be further queues to endure on Friday.
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, criticised the Andrews government’s decision to close its borders, saying her state had waited until Victoria was recording about 120 cases a day before doing the same thing.
“I don’t think at this stage closing the border between NSW and Victoria is a good use of resources,” Berejiklian said.
“I think we’re better off asking the community to come forward to get tested, cutting off those chains of transmission, making sure everybody has enough information about venues and about Covid-safe activities.”
Local politicians also hit out at the handling of the border closure. The Albury mayor, Kevin Mack, told Sky News it was a “knee-jerk reaction”, while Kevin Poulton, the mayor of Wodonga, said there had been a lack of communication with border communities.
“Empathy to anybody who is as confused as we are in our own local community about how these things come about and change so quickly,” Poulton told 2GB.
On Friday NSW health authorities announced three new locally-acquired cases of coronavirus, while Victoria recorded zero local cases.
The cases ended a 60-day streak without infections for Victoria and were linked to the Smile Buffalo Thai restaurant in Black Rock on 21 December, which was attended by a NSW returned traveller.
Victoria’s Covid-19 commander, Jeroen Weimar, said: “I appreciate the sacrifice for people, holidays cut short, time with family cut shot and people asked to quarantine for those contact investigations.
“Unfortunately, collectively, that is what we have to do to stop this thing in its tracks and go forward from here and enjoy 2021 as we move forward.”
Weimar confirmed that people who sought to cross the NSW-Victoria border after 11.59pm on 1 January would be turned back.
Some commuters reported that the delayed had eased by Friday.
Victoria’s regional train network, V-Line, also confirmed it would stop running services from Albury due to the border closures.
Victorians can continue to return from Canberra with a permit, while the acting premier, Jacinta Allan, said on Thursday that more details would be announced for border communities and people who were travelling through NSW to return to Victoria.
Western Australia also closed its border to NSW from Friday and reimposed a hard border with Victoria.