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Govt apologises after border chaos, mixed messages

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South Australian authorities have apologised for a “breakdown in communication” after a morning of mixed messaging and a night of border chaos, which saw Christmas plans ruined for many families as hundreds of people arriving from Sydney were wrongly turned back or forced into quarantine.

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Police Commissioner Grant Stevens took to radio early this morning to apologise and clarify the situation, just minutes after the state’s deputy chief public health officer issued quarantine advice at complete odds with the police direction and the Commissioner’s comments.

There was mass confusion and chaos at Adelaide Airport and at road border checkpoints overnight, with travellers arriving before the flagged midnight deadline told to return to Sydney or begin 14 days of quarantine.

Amid growing concerns about Sydney’s Avalon cluster – which today grew to 83 confirmed cases with 15 new positive tests – Premier Steven Marshall announced new restrictions yesterday afternoon, declaring they would come info force from midnight.

People from the northern beaches are now banned from entering SA, while anyone from greater Sydney must quarantine for 14 days.

People from regional NSW don’t need to quarantine but they need to get tested.

But after several people arriving by road and air well before the midnight cut-off were last night forced into quarantine, deputy chief public health officer Dr Michael Cusack this morning told ABC Radio Adelaide they were required to quarantine.

“What we’re saying is that if someone has been in a high risk zone after [December] 11th or in terms of Central Coast Council and the Wollongong City Council after the 20th that you will have to complete a period of quarantine and we’re saying that the period of quarantine starts from the point at which you left those zones,” he said.

“If you think about how virus is going to spread I don’t think it’ll recognise a hard cut-off in terms of ‘if you came in just to prior to midnight you’re unlikely to carry infection with you, but if you’ve come in just after then you are at risk’, so clearly the guidance that we agreed and that we wrote is very reflective that the virus is not a respecter of the 24-hour clock.

“We are very keen to ensure that we minimise the impact on people, but equally we have to recognise that there is an outbreak in NSW and we do have to protect the South Australian public.”

Cusack added that “in terms of the health perspective, and obviously I’m speaking to you as a health doctor, I think… we’ve structured the direction and the contents of it to best reflect what we believe was the risk at particular points in NSW at particular points in time”. 

“Clearly I do appreciate that this will impact upon people and their families and their Christmas plans [but] we have tried to nuance the direction as far as possible to try and minimise that, but yet balance against the risk of viral spread into South Australia,” he said.

He said people who arrived before midnight, “from a health perspective, they do need to remain in quarantine”.

But less than half an hour later, Stevens told FIVEaa that was wrong.

“If they came across the border before midnight they don’t have to quarantine,” he said.

“It’s a very unfortunate set of circumstances and we can only apologise to the people who were given the wrong information.

“There is no excuse. It has affected people’s Christmases and we are very sorry about that.”

The Police Commissioner revealed he found out about the chaos and misinformation about 9.30pm last night, when he was contacted by friends trying to cross the border into SA.

“I was onto (SA) Health straight away. We clarified the fact that people do not have to quarantine if they came into SA from the greater Sydney area before midnight last night,” he said.

“We are still trying to find out where the breakdown in communication occurred… this is a very unfortunate set of circumstances that has had a significant impact on a lot of families. We don’t want it to happen again.”

Stevens said most people who had wrongly been told to isolate would now be able to leave quarantine once contacted by authorities.

At a press conference later this morning, health authorities attempted to explain how the messaging mistake had occurred.

Stevens said “in the process of communicating those expectations to the drafting team between SA Health and SA Police there was some miscommunication that resulted in specific instructions going out to our border checkpoints that people coming in from the greater Sydney area were required to quarantine upon arrival in SA immediately”.

“We obviously regret the inconvenience and disruption that this has caused people who were affected by the incorrect advice provided to our checkpoint teams but it’s important to point out the steps we take are done in the interests of protecting the South Australian community,” he said.

Stevens said around 100 travellers at road borders made the decision to turn around and go home and others came through to quarantine.

He said 550 people were currently in quarantine in SA having travelled from NSW.

“Each of those travellers are being contacted directly and will be given specific advice as to whether they are required to quarantine or not,” he said.

He said the majority would be able to leave quarantine immediately but others who had been in the northern beaches would still be required to quarantine.

When asked how Cusack, who did not attend the media conference, could still be unaware of the midnight deadline this morning, Stevens said: “You will have to ask him that.”

“I think I’ve made it clear today that anyone who came in prior to midnight was not required to quarantine,” he said.

Health Minister Stephen Wade, taking centre stage in the absence of the Premier who began a week’s leave today, also apologised for the mistake and said the Government would consider calls for compensation on a “case by case basis”.

“If people believe they are entitled to compensation they can make contact with SA Health,” he said.

“I regret the inconvenience to people whose plans were disrupted due to the misunderstanding. I certainly apologise for that.”

Chief public health officer professor Nicola Spurrier said she had “spoken to” Cusack but added that it was a complicated situation.

“I think we were very clear at our press conference yesterday what our intentions were,” she said.

“I will also apologise on behalf of the Government to those people inconvenienced.

“I’m sure everyone will forgive Dr Cusack for making that mistake earlier this morning.”

Spurrier said there were no new cases in SA today and she didn’t anticipate any changes to previously-announced restrictions for Christmas day gatherings.

“If we can continue with no cases other than (in) hotel quarantine I’m very confident with the restrictions we have in place,” she said.

In regards to compensation for visitors wrongly forced to return to Sydney or into quarantine, she reiterated it would be done on a “case by case basis”.

Police had sent out a written update to COVID-19 directions about 1am, stating that for any person who had travelled to South Australia from a high community transmission zone “and arrived before 12.01 am on Monday 21 December 2020, you do not need to self-quarantine but you must get a COVID-19 test immediately within 24 hours; then day 5; and then day 12”.

Opposition spokesman Chris Picton labelled the episode “a chaotic border bungle which is extremely unfortunate and has caused a lot of confusion in the community”.

“It’s absolutely important that people know what the right instructions are so that they can follow them,” he said.

While authorities will consider compensation for people forced to return to Sydney, Picton said: “What we do need to see is what the criteria for that compensation is going to be.”

One woman told ABC Radio Adelaide that when she arrived at the airport last night well before midnight she was told she had to quarantine.

She booked a hotel room but was then advised by her family she’d been given the wrong information.

 “I went back to the airport and asked to speak to a senior police officer and he said ‘yep, that’s right, you’re fine to go’,” she said.

Another man said he was “absolutely livid about this” after his son was turned away at a road checkpoint and forced to drive back to NSW.

He will now miss Christmas with his family.

“We haven’t seen him for over a year,” the angry father said.

Another woman said she and her partner arrived from Sydney on Saturday evening and got a test yesterday because they would be seeing an unwell aunt for Christmas.

They lined up at the Victoria Park testing station for two and a half hours “and we were told that we had to immediately self-isolate for 14 days despite being in no hotspots from Sydney”.

Last night’s bungle also led to gridlock at Adelaide Airport, with hundreds of passengers from other incoming flights forced to wait aboard planes for hours.

Sydney public relations manager Jarrad Brevi, a former journalist with 9 News Adelaide, tweeted video of successive announcements of delays.

He told InDaily today passengers remained on the flight for around two hours and “there was a bit of cabin fever” as people started receiving messages from friends who had been sent back to Sydney.

In the event, he and his partner were told to delay their travel plans to Port Pirie and remain in Adelaide until they received a negative COVID test.

“It wasn’t comfortable standing on the plane, but we can be quick to pile on to politicians and police – they have a tough job,” he said.

“There were 30 or 40 SA Health [workers] and police trying to process a lot of tired and stressed people as quickly as possible.”

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