When Jody learnt that her grandmother was terminally ill, her first thought was to fly back to the UK. But as a permanent Australian resident she was banned from leaving the country owing to coronavirus travel restrictions and her request for an exemption on compassionate grounds was turned down.
“My grandmother has been such an instrumental part of my life, I just want the chance to say goodbye and for my children to say goodbye,” said the British-born mother of two, who did not want her full name disclosed as she appeals against the decision.
Jody is one of thousands of Australian residents who have had their request for a travel exemption rejected under what critics said were the world’s toughest Covid-19 travel rules, more typical of North Korea than a liberal democracy.
Apart from banning residents and citizens from leaving the country, the conservative government has closed its borders to non-residents and implemented caps of 4,000 passengers on the number of expats permitted to return each week.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the measures were needed to tackle an outbreak of Covid-19 in Victoria, which was caused by breaches in Australia’s hotel quarantine system for returning residents.
He forecast the restrictions would remain in place for “some months” — a prospect that has alarmed many of the one in four Australians born overseas and who retain family ties to their country of birth.
“Human rights are being thrown out the window,” said Jacqui Cameron, a travel agent who has been inundated with pleas for help from people struggling to leave Australia or return to the country.
“When I came to Australia from the UK about 20 years ago it was all about freedom. Now some people are comparing the country to North Korea.” Only one in three of the 104,785 applications for travel exemptions had been granted since March 25, the government said.
Supporters point out that Australia’s hard line stance on travel has successfully suppressed the spread of the virus in most states, except Victoria. There have been 24,407 cases reported nationally with just 472 deaths, considerably less than the 323,313 cases and 41,405 deaths in the UK, which has implemented less stringent restrictions.
Neil Levy, professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, said Australia’s geographical isolation meant lockdowns were easier to maintain and, in the short-term at least, effective.
“We seem to have a stronger sense of a collective good, and a willingness to pay a cost to achieve it, which makes us accepting of restrictions on our liberties,” said Prof Levy, who added that there was a higher level of trust in government in Australia than in either the US or UK.
James Curran a history professor at University of Sydney, said Australians’ acceptance of draconian rules flew in the face of a national stereotype of laid-back, anti-authoritarian “larrikins”.
“Historically, the rules that relate to the preservation of a cordon sanitaire around the country — in the past it was the ring of protectionism and the great white wall of white Australia — were cherished orthodoxies,” Prof Curran said.
“When the borders are at stake, when there is the threat of an alien force or element, in this case a pandemic lurking off the coast, Australians for the most part fall into line.”
But there are signs of growing public frustration. People desperate to get in or out the country have set up Facebook groups, which share stories about their plight. Some have even begun lobbying MPs to pressure the government to ease restrictions.
Zali Steggall, a Sydney MP, said it was difficult to understand the justification for the ban on outward travel, which she said put Australia on a par with North Korea. “Are we now a prison state, that unless you can justify yourself to the department, you cannot leave?” she told local media.
Meanwhile, thousands of Australians who were abroad when the pandemic struck are struggling to return. They have been stymied by caps on air passengers and the huge costs involved in travel.
In Sydney, mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine costs A$3,000 ($2,150) for one adult, A$1,000 for each additional adult and A$500 for a child. And hundreds of travellers have had their economy-class flights cancelled multiple times, leaving them stranded overseas, sometimes for months.
Restricted to carrying 30 to 50 people on incoming flights, the few airlines still flying to Australia are prioritising more expensive business-class tickets.
“We were forced to book business-class tickets. It is better to mitigate the risk of getting cancelled,” said Kim Perks, who has already had one flight cancelled as she attempts to fly home from the United Arab Emirates.
Government plans to fly in 300 fee-paying foreign students next month to boost the university sector has attracted criticism from expats trapped abroad, who accuse Canberra of neglecting its own citizens in the pursuit of profit.
“What saddens me most is the tales of those trying desperately to get back home to say goodbye to loved ones,” Ms Perks said. “They’re missing seeing a parent or close relative for the last time and often missing the funeral. It’s heartbreaking.”