Stuck in Sydney with no realistic way home: A Melburnian’s lament
Fun fact: if we were in New York, Los Angeles or London, it'd be easier for us to get home to Melbourne. Expensive, difficult, yes. But legal.
But instead we're in far off, remote and COVID-plagued Sydney. And right now there is, as far as we can tell, no feasible, legal route home for our family for the foreseeable future.
Nick Miller and members of his family. They have been stuck in Sydney “red zone” by COVID-related border issues.Credit:Nick Miller
To rewind. A few days before Christmas, NSW recorded a worrying burst of 30 COVID-19 cases in a day. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews stepped up to the microphone and laid out a difficult choice.
We were a week into our Sydney holiday, taking the kids to see the grandparents they hadn't seen all year. Nobody looks forward to Christmas like a four-year-old who's been through 2020 Melbourne. Or a grandparent who has watched their only grandkids grow a year older on Skype.
But the coronavirus doesn't care for sentiment. Andrews made it clear. We had 24 hours to find a flight to Melbourne and shut ourselves in our home for two weeks for a miserable festive season.
Or, "If however as a returning Victorian you arrive after midnight Monday then you will go into mandatory hotel quarantine", said Andrews.
The New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney harbour as seen from Mrs Macquarie’s Point in Sydney on January 1, 2021.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
I'm not quarrelling with this policy. As the rest of the year showed, his team foresaw a very real risk.
We soon got a text from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services along similar lines. "From 00:01am Tuesday 22 December, anyone entering Victoria will be required to enter into Victoria's Hotel Quarantine Program for 14 days". Message received.
The next morning, Monday, we packed our bags. Flights were being cancelled all over the place but there was still a good chance we would find one. Then the NSW numbers came in: 15. Halved in a day. The locals seemed confident. They had, after all “gold standard” COVID-19 management, to quote the Prime Minister.
We teetered and, just, decided to stay. We reasoned, let’s not cancel Christmas. We stay, and if things get worse again then in the new year we can take the hotel quarantine option.
Hotel quarantine: far from ideal, with a four year-old and 15 month-old twin toddlers. A living nightmare, you might say. And expensive. Nevertheless, an option.
Then NSW failed dismally to knock its outbreak on the head. That alleged gold standard COVID system came with pewter-standard public compliance on masks and social distancing rules (don't get me started, nobody here wears masks anywhere).
Plus on Christmas Eve we got an unexpected (for complicated reasons) letter telling us our daughter was to start school in 2021. We couldn't linger in NSW. We had to get home. We called Victoria’s coronavirus hotline to work out how to arrange a remotely bearable quarantine. We'd get two rooms, right?
No, we were told, no rooms. You can’t come back at all. Huh?
"Mandatory hotel quarantine", it turns out, is for people who cross the border. And no one still in Sydney could cross the border. Police would turn back cars, airlines would check permits before boarding.
Revellers at Bronte on Christmas Day. Credit:James Alcock
We made phone calls, asking various officials how to get into hotel quarantine in Victoria. We were told, no. You can't. It’s the policy.
It's the policy, apparently, because if the thousands of Victorians in NSW wanted to come home in the next few weeks there just aren't remotely enough quarantine hotel rooms to hold them. Hotel quarantine had been mentioned as a deterrent, not an option. This had not been clear, to put it mildly.
We hatched a new plan: two weeks, at great expense, in an Airbnb in regional NSW – a detox in the green zone, in COVID-undiscovered countryside from whose bourn we travellers might still return to Victoria.
On New Year’s Eve that option was closed, too, as all NSW became the forbidden zone.
We're stuck. We cannot get home. For how long? Weeks? Months? Who knows. How will we work when our holiday leave runs out? Who will then take care of the kids?
Wild thoughts occurred. If we flew to Tasmania under current rules we could self-isolate for two weeks in a serviced apartment and then fly to Victoria. But we learnt our lesson on the "green zone" debacle: don’t risk your savings on a loophole that could close any moment. Nope.
Or, if we were super-rich, we could hire a plane or a yacht and fly or sail it to Victoria, pay hefty fines for breaking the law and get into the hotel quarantine that's denied to people who don't have ten grand to spare.
Even Western Australia, which slams down the shutters every time someone over the rabbit fence sneezes, is letting its citizens back from Victoria on "compassionate grounds" if they went there for Christmas. Even Australians in COVID-riddled Europe or the US can find flights – albeit expensive, albeit difficult to nail down, but at least it's an option from the other side of the world.
But there are no repatriation flights for we marooned Melburnians in Sydney. COVID-free (we just got tests), responsible, never visited the northern beaches or any other hotspot, don’t go out much anyway, the model home quarantiners. But we're not worth the risk?
It feels weird. Melbourne is our home. And while we were out, someone nailed up the door.
I look back now to that Andrews press conference and think, if it had been made clear that we had 24 hours to come home or we might not see the place for months we would likely have made a different choice.
Right now we would be two-thirds of our way through quarantine and bouncing off the walls but, and this is the point, home.
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