Should Returning Australian Citizens Pay for Hotel Quarantine?

Stuck: pets are in limbo due to COVID19 travel bans and Australian quarantine

With the prime minster and National Cabinet introducing caps on the numbers of Australians returning home and a user pays system for mandatory hotel quarantine for returning Australians from mid July, taxpayers may be relieved that they are off the hook for this particular bill. I believe that the government’s argument of it being “fair” and “you’ve had enough time to get home” is flawed — the circumstances of expats are more nuanced and complex than they would have Australians believe, particularly if repatriating beloved pets is involved. My cat (and consequently me) is stuck in limbo in Vietnam because of COVID19 travel bans and Australian Quarantine laws. Getting home to Australia now is much more challenging than the government acknowledges.

On July 10, Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a statement from National Cabinet saying that that all travellers returning to Australia from overseas should now pay up to $3,000 for their mandatory hotel quarantine. Everyone has had time to get come home so this is fair, said the New South Wales premier, Gladys BerejiklianYou’ve had three or four months to get back, said the prime minister. And I’d agree if they were talking about ordinary, regular, everyday tourists. People who had booked a two, three or even six week holiday overseas or cruise or safari. People who were returning home from a brief interlude of international travel. You know. Travellers.

But what if you’ve lived overseas for some time? Months or even years? What if you have employment contracts to honour, children in school? What if leaving the foreign country means apartments and houses to pack up, bank accounts to close, friends and work colleagues to say good-bye to, businesses or companies to wind up? If you’re an expat wanting to come home, it’s not as easy as just getting on a plane, assuming that a) you can afford to purchase a ticket b) the flight isn’t cancelled and c) you’re actually one of the lucky few allowed to fly in to Sydney or any other Australian airport at this time, given the caps on numbers (which is a whole other issue that I’ll address).

In my case, I have a cat to repatriate, which because of Australia’s quarantine laws — that haven’t been relaxed at all to make life easier for returning Australians — has made my homecoming doubly complicated. And quadruply expensive. And exponentially more stressful.

I’ve been living in Hanoi for almost four years, and had decided to come back to Australia in January. It was time. I had set in motion all the requirements to bring my cat home: Rabies testing, engaging a pet transporter, completing a mountain of paperwork, fainting at the cost of it all. I had brought her to Vietnam in 2017, not anticipating the changes to Vietnamese immigration laws in 2019 which has made staying long-term increasingly difficult.

In February 2020, Malaysia was removed from the list of pre-entry countries due to dodgy agents doing dodgy import processes. This delayed my cat’s export out of Vietnam — my pet transporter and I had to scramble to come up with alternative solutions, and we decided on Doha in Qatar, as the cheapest and easiest option. Wheels were set in motion. Again.

In the meantime, COVID was ramping up, culminating in the prime minister and DFAT calling all Australians home in March. Panicking, I tried to expedite my cat’s export, but to no avail — like falling dominoes borders closed, flights were cancelled and airlines that usually accepted pets refused to fly them. One after the other.

I had to make a tough choice: either put my beloved cat in boarding for an unspecified amount of time and come back to Australia, or stay in Vietnam until I could get her out. I chose the latter because it wasn’t her choice to be in Hanoi: it was mine. She’s as Australian as I am. How could I leave her?

Now it’s July. I have been watching borders open and flights resume, waiting and hoping and praying that the few the airlines now flying out of Hanoi will accept pets. It’s a waiting game, and one that seems to have no end. No one can give me a definite date. Or a definite date is given, then rescinded. Qatar Airways told me via Twitter that everything is up in the air:

…our flights operate following the latest advice of the government authorities. Schedules may get canceled or changed without prior notice.’

I would come home tomorrow if I could — assuming I can get on a flight — but it’s not possible. Qatar was supposed to fly out of Hanoi on July 3. This has been rescheduled to August 2, but not showing up in flight ticket bookings until September. Even if they do start flying, who knows when they will accept pets? Emirates is flying, but Dubai is not an option because there are too many restrictions on importing pets at this time, and the difficulty in getting my cat to Doha.

And now the only quarantine facility in Australia, which is in Victoria, is now off limits for international flights, so pets are stuck in limbo. And so are many owners. Why didn’t AQIS, with all the modern diagnostics that are available, relax regulations at this time so people with pets could return easily and more cheaply? After all, aren’t humans more of a risk to Australia’s bio-security than animals now? AQIS could easily have extended the quarantine period from two weeks to four or six for pets, and sensibly, opened more facilities to cope with any expected influx.

So to Gladys and Scott and any other politician who thinks it’s easy to come home, I say this: their one size fits all policy that declares returning Australians should pay for their hotel quarantine is ill-considered, misinformed, discriminatory and ultimately, cruel. Verging on unAustralian, it needs to be rethought, and quickly. Expats returning to Australia need all the support from their government they can get, not less.

We are still citizens, after all.

Other issues that need to be considered

  • Given the current rates of COVID infection in Australia, returning Australians are more likely to catch the virus from the community. In fact, I’d like to see the current numbers of infections that are imported.
  • A cap on numbers of people flying to each airport is a major issue. People are being bumped from flights, or being blackmailed into flying by upgrading to business class for thousands of dollars more. Qatar Airlines seems to be the worst offender.
  • The Australian Constitution may prove that border closures are unlawful, and therefore, so too the caps on returning Australians.
  • Hotel quarantine is not the only solution. When the pandemic first hit, returning Australians self-isolated in accommodation of their choice. Other countries like Hong Kong have introduce a home detention bracelet and a tracking app.
  • The government has mandated hotel quarantine is necessary, without giving Australians any choice (unless, of course you’re rich and a celebrity). It’s highly likely this approach is unlawful under Australian consumer law.

This piece was first published on Medium.  Image credit Pexels from Pixabay.

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