More than 2,000 Victorians stranded in New South Wales have applied for an exemption to the hard border closure to allow them to return home.
The state’s acting premier, Jacinta Allan, said on Monday about 2,200 applications had been lodged since the government imposed a hard border closure with NSW on New Year’s Day. Allan said 175 exemptions had been processed at last count.
“Priority right now is being given to people with particular medical needs, particularly emergency medical needs, and other emergency requirements,” she said.
More than 60,000 Victorians returned over the new year period after the state government announced no one would be able to cross the border from 11.59pm on 1 January.
Though the government had flagged the possibility of further changes to border rules, the decision announced on New Year’s Eve sparked lengthy queues at the border as Victorians rushed to meet the deadline.
Others still in NSW have been left in limbo.
Melbourne woman Eliza, 24, was camping in northern NSW with her housemates, Maison, Byron and James, when the border closure was announced.
Eliza, who did not want her surname published, said the group had been camping from 30 December until 2 January on a property near Grafton where there was no mobile phone reception.
When they regained reception, they learned the border between Victoria and NSW was already shut.
“It was particularly shocking coming out and to get that news and that we had missed the iterative stages of returning,” Eliza said. “We didn’t even know any of those options were being released on the news.”
Other Victorians who were camping in remote parts of NSW over the New Year period have shared similar stories.
Eliza’s household, which includes a healthcare worker, called Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services to apply for an exemption on 2 January and again on 3 January.
She said the phone lines had been continually jammed, though they had managed to get through after calling dozens of times.
They are yet to hear back about the progress of their household’s application. The group needs to return to Victoria for work and study.
Eliza said she and her housemates were lucky because they were able to stay with family in NSW in the meantime.
“But … Melbourne is our home and it’s the home we’ve been living in together,” she said. “When we came back we weren’t anticipating coming back [to NSW] for months.”
She understood why authorities acted quickly to shut the border, but also felt it was “important for the government to provide safe passage for residents”.
Allan said essential workers and others applying for an exemption on compassionate grounds would have their claims prioritised.
The government had also boosted resources to deal with the backlog of applications, she said.
“Each case is being case managed with individual attention, that takes a bit of time to work through,” Allan said.
The decision to close the border was sparked by the spread of coronavirus cases from NSW, ending a two months of no local transmission in Victoria.
On Monday, Victoria recorded another three locally-acquired cases linked to the Black Rock cluster, while there were two community cases reported overnight in Sydney.
Darren Chester, a federal Nationals MP for Gippsland, which includes border communities in Victoria’s far east, called on the state government to help residents return home.
“I’d be urging the Victorian health authorities to show some compassion here to work with these people who did nothing wrong,” he told Sky News on Monday.
“Don’t blame them for going on a holiday when they’ve been locked up for months … you find a way to get them home.”
Victorian health authorities have previously stressed that only people with “genuine hardships” would be able to cross the hard border.
Allan also announced on Monday a permit system for agricultural workers, allowing them to travel between Victoria and NSW under the same strict standards that apply to the freight industry.
“It means that the important work that makes a big economic contribution to our state and our country can continue,” she said.
“But there are some very strict standards associated with the movement of agricultural workers between Victoria and NSW.”