Travelling in 2020 Felt Like Running from Police
Travelling even within my own country during COVID-19 has been fraught with risk. I’ve often felt like a criminal despite following the rules.
In March 2020, I arrived in Portugal’s beautiful Azores Islands for a holiday. It was very early days in the coronavirus pandemic and there were no restrictions on entering the islands. But for the very first time on the morning of my arrival, flights were met by health officials. Only a few passengers were allowed to disembark at a time, with everyone questioned thoroughly by local authorities before being allowed in.
The following day, the Azores government implemented even more rigorous screening of inbound passengers in a bid to prevent COVID-19 from entering the islands. And just a day after that, as the threat became clearer, tourists were banned from entering altogether.
At the time, I was surprised to feel so unwelcome at my holiday destination — as well as how rapidly the border restrictions changed. Little did I know that this would become the norm when travelling in 2020.
A few days later, I returned to Austria (where I was living at the time) just hours before that country entered a strict lockdown.
The following week, with the pandemic quickly spiralling out of control, I returned to Australia (where I am a citizen) to be met by immigration, customs, biosecurity officers and police. I was immediately sent into self-isolation for 14 days; if I had arrived just days later, I would have been sent into hotel quarantine instead.
To be clear, I completely understand why governments have placed restrictions on international travel while there is a raging pandemic. They have a responsibility to protect their own citizens and I support many of the measures in place. After arriving back in Australia, I willingly completed my 14 days of quarantine.
By the time I was out of “iso”, as it’s known in Australia, the whole country was in lockdown anyway. But despite a shaky start and various local outbreaks and setbacks along the way, Australia has done relatively well in eliminating community spread of COVID-19.
Australians have been encouraged to holiday at home
By June 2020, intrastate travel was once again possible and interstate borders began to reopen shortly afterwards.
Recognising the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry, Australian state and federal governments even began running prominent advertising campaigns encouraging Australians to “holiday at home this year”.
Of course, I would not travel somewhere if it was unsafe. Nor would I violate any border restrictions. But when it has been safe, and borders have been open, I have done some travel within Australia since then.
Even though I didn’t break any rules — and even though states were running advertising campaigns encouraging visitors — I’ve often felt like a criminal when arriving interstate.
I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. Perhaps it’s because most Australian states now require border permits for interstate travel. (Throughout the application process you’re constantly reminded of the heavy penalties for giving incorrect information.) Maybe it’s all the armed police who have been meeting domestic flights. Or perhaps it’s because the restrictions have changed so frequently, causing me to continuously second-guess myself.
So often, I just felt like I shouldn’t be where I was — even though I wasn’t breaking any laws.
If all the police checks weren’t enough to make tourists feel unwelcome, the locals in some parts of Australia have also played their part. Victorians were certainly made to feel unwelcome in much of Australia during that COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne— even if they’d left the state months earlier. While visiting outback Queensland in August 2020, I’m sorry to say that Victorians were the butt of pretty much every joke.
Victorians were copping so much abuse that I came across this sign on a car in the main street of Winton, QLD:
Last week, there were ads all over Canberra Airport informing travellers such as myself that Queensland was “good to go”.
But when I arrived in Brisbane from Canberra two hours later, I once again did not exactly feel welcome. As I happen to live just across the border from the ACT, in NSW, I was questioned by police on arrival and had to show my border pass.
I was allowed into Queensland as I hadn’t been to any “hotspots”, but I remained on edge during my entire stay in Queensland. At any moment, the rules could change and I could have become inadvertently stuck in another state, unable to return home.
If the yo-yo of state border closures over the past year has taught us anything: just because Queensland says it’s “good to go” now, doesn’t mean it will remain that way in an hour!
So, rather than enjoying my holiday, I spent most mornings in Queensland watching the various state premiers giving their daily press conferences.
Border restrictions are now being applied retrospectively
At the beginning of the pandemic, governments would generally provide at least a day’s notice before changing border restrictions. Now, governments are increasingly imposing new rules with immediate effect — and in some cases even retrospectively. This is starting to become a trend in Australia in 2021, and it’s concerning.
In some cases, there may be good reason to do this. At other times, the sudden rule changes feel arbitrary and disproportionate to the extreme inconvenience & cost they impose on unsuspecting travellers (and businesses) who have followed all the relevant advice up to that point.
As it turns out, I had good reason to be nervous about being in Brisbane last week. Last Thursday, the city reported a new case of COVID-19 community transmission. Just a day later, Brisbane entered a 3-day lockdown.
The NT government immediately declared Brisbane a hotspot and barred entry even to passengers who were already in the air (that flight landed at Uluru and then immediately returned to Brisbane with all passengers still on board). This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened.
Similarly, the Victorian government imposed a hard border with Brisbane that very evening. It barely gave one hour of notice. Even Victorian residents in Brisbane are now unable to return home without an exemption. (They join all the Victorians in NSW who are also currently locked out of their own state.)
The WA government went a step further. Not only did it ban arrivals from the entire state of Queensland from that evening, but it also now requires anyone in WA who had been in Queensland in the last week to quarantine for 14 days. (Never mind that somewhere like Cairns has had no recent COVID-19 cases and is 1,600km from Brisbane.)
Recently, WA had also imposed retrospective quarantine requirements on people who have entered from Victoria and NSW — taking effect well after these people arrived.
The WA government would argue that it’s protecting its citizens and is just treating the COVID-19 risk with an abundance of caution. It has every right to do this. But the recent story of an ACT politician being fined and sent into quarantine because he made a quick visit to Queanbeyan (just across the ACT border in NSW, which is close to where I live and has no COVID-19 cases) before flying to WA, highlights how arbitrary and lazy some of these “one-size-fits-all” rules are.
There are currently no restrictions on people entering WA from the ACT, as long as they haven’t been in NSW or knowingly come in contact with people from NSW during the past 14 days.
That particular man from the ACT poses an absolutely negligible risk to WA. But, you know, rules are rules and the WA premier has an election to win in a few months.
Advertising vs reality
At the moment, the tourism advertising in Australia just doesn’t match reality. Governments are encouraging Australians to travel within their country, yet travelling interstate is now so fraught with risk (due to governments’ own policies) that I’ve stopped buying plane tickets more than 24 hours in advance.
(To combat this, airlines say they’ll let you change your flight for free… but good luck getting through to their call centres after the border has just closed and thousands of other travellers are in the same predicament!)
Australia’s citizens, economy, airlines, hotels, tourism operators and businesses in general, all need more certainty than this. This is no way to live and travellers will simply not travel if they are at risk of getting stuck somewhere through no fault of their own, and are made to feel like criminals who should have known better when they do. (Perhaps that’s the point.)
The constant criticism from Australians who obviously have superior crystal balls and think stranded travellers — be they stuck in another state or overseas — only have themselves to blame, is also not helpful.
In my case, I returned to NSW before the Brisbane lockdown but now have to self-isolate for the duration of the Brisbane lockdown. Honestly, that’s fair enough and I’m willing to do that. But it will certainly make me think twice about travelling interstate again before there is a vaccine.