Over 7000 people, including returning South Australians, are currently waiting for SA Health to decide whether they should be allowed to enter the state, but authorities only have the capacity to process about 200 travel exemption applications each day.
The surge in applications and strict exemptions guidelines have left those wanting to return to South Australia waiting weeks before finding out whether their applications have been approved.
Adelaide mother of two Keltie Archer told InDaily she travelled to Sydney, which was under lockdown, on August 10 for “deeply personal” and “desperate” family reasons, which she said she was reluctant to reveal.
She applied for a travel exemption to return back to Adelaide on August 11, but said SA Health didn’t notify her until September 9 that her application had been declined.
Archer, who is fully-vaccinated and currently living outside a COVID hotspot area in eastern Sydney, said SA Health did not tell her why her application had been declined.
She said she was now seeking legal advice to determine what options she had to appeal the decision, or what penalties she might face if desperation led her to consider entering South Australia without an approved travel exemption.
“I’m taking this on – I want those people held to account in Government,” she said.
“This is not good enough – they’re making decisions about people’s lives and not explaining why.
“It is beyond the pale.”
Archer said she had rung the SA Health COVID information line about seven times but had not been given clear advice about when she would be able to return to South Australia.
The heartbreak is happening right around Australia, right around the world as this pandemic rips through our communities
She said she had contacted state and federal MPs from both sides of parliament, but no one was able to help her return back to South Australia.
Archer said she was now “weighing up whether to just get to the border”.
“So what? I get a $3000 fine and I have to go into a $3000 medi-hotel? At least this will be over,” she said.
“My option is otherwise just sitting here waiting on bureaucracy to decide that the borders are going to come down.”
It comes as Labor leader Peter Malinauskas today accused the State Government of prioritising interstate tradespeople contracted to work on the Gawler rail electrification project over South Australians who are desperate to return home.
“Whatever the Government does in terms of brining essential workers across the border, or people in on the basis of compassionate grounds, it needs to be transparent and consistent, so that every South Australian can have confidence in the process not being determined by political factors like completing an infrastructure project on time,” he said.
“These sorts of different rules for some isn’t without precedent – during the recent statewide lockdown we saw that there was a ban on construction activity in South Australia, only for a few days later to see (Premier) Steven Marshall announce exemptions for building and construction on school building projects that they want to get finished before the next state election.
“Politics should never be a variable – there should be transparency and consistency when it comes to exemptions.”
Deputy chief public health officer Dr Emily Kirkpatrick said interstate workers are allowed to enter South Australia when there is “critical or urgent business that is required to be undertaken”.
She said each essential worker is required to have a “risk mitigation plan”, wait until they return a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine when not working.
From September 24, all essential workers travelling from high-risk jurisdictions must also be vaccinated.
We will be dealing with COVID-19 in South Australia, it’s about making sure our health system is ready to deal with that when it comes in
Kirkpatrick said SA Health was currently processing about 200 travel exemptions a day – the majority from people stuck in Victoria.
“A number of these are people who are wanting to come into SA – they see us as this great state where they can travel across and escape from their various particular situations and for many of these cases, unfortunately, we have had to reject them because they have not met our criteria for travelling into SA,” she said.
“We are reforming our processes with the team, making it clearer to assess those applications online, to streamline then the response going back.
“We’re continuing to increase our administrative support, but of course, they do all need to be assessed on that case-by-case basis.
“We are at the point now where there is so much risk currently in New South Wales and Victoria that we absolutely need an individual lens on these applications.”
Health Minister Stephen Wade said it was “completely understandable that people are distressed as they wait for the consideration of their application for an exemption for a travel restriction”.
“The heartbreak is happening right around Australia, right around the world as this pandemic rips through our communities,” he said.
“It’s very important that each of those 7500 applications are properly considered because every single case could represent the introduction of (the) delta (variant) into our state.
“The heartbreak that would be caused to our state if there was an outbreak in South Australia like there has been in the three jurisdictions to the east is something that this Government is very determined to avoid.”
Wade denied that the Government was prioritising approving travel exemption applications for essential workers contracted to work on taxpayer-funded projects, saying it was “not having political decisions interfere with a public health response”.
“We are not giving special favours to state projects,” he said.
“The exemptions process, of course, consults with relevant government agencies so that they can properly assess the need.”
No changes to SA restrictions
Meanwhile, the state’s transition committee this morning made no changes to South Australia’s border arrangements or public activities directions.
Police Commissioner and state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens said the health advice was that there are “no changes in terms of the risk from New South Wales, ACT or Victoria”.
“Our borders will stay in place, we have them as strong as we can have them at the moment,” Stevens told reporters after the transition committee meeting.
“Based on that level of risk and the need to be in a position to respond to COVID, there are no further changes at this point in time to the public activities [direction].”
The police commissioner also said the transition committee was working on determining what base level of restrictions will be in place in South Australia when 80 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
“When we hit that level then the plan is to relax our borders, which means people will come into South Australia and we need to make sure that we have the ability to trace anyone who brings the virus in so we can properly manage the wellbeing of South Australians,” he said.
“We will be dealing with COVID-19 in South Australia, it’s about making sure our health system is ready to deal with that when it comes in.
“The advice I’ve been provided by SA Health is that they are prepared for the eventualities that will arise when COVID-19 comes and when we get that 80 per cent vaccination rate.”
The transition committee will meet again next week to review the state’s testing requirements on travellers from southeast Queensland.
Victoria today recorded 445 new coronavirus cases and two deaths, New South Wales reported 1127 new cases and two deaths, while there were 22 new cases recorded in the ACT.
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