The Victorian ombudsman will urgently investigate the state’s travel permit regime after receiving more than 80 complaints including that a failure to provide exemptions had effectively left some people homeless.
The ombudsman, Deborah Glass, said most of the complaints related to Victorians attempting to return to the state after the border was closed to New South Wales on 9 July.
Glass said complaints regarding the system had come from people including children wanting to return home to be with their parents after their NSW school closed, a mother wanting to return home to care for her adult daughter after being permitted to leave Victoria to attend a funeral, and a woman wanting to return to her farm to care for her animals.
Some individual cases had been raised with the Department of Health and several had been resolved, Glass said, but the complaints were continuing, raising possible systemic issues about departmental decision-making.
“The situation is increasingly urgent with the extended lockdown,” Glass said.
“Some people are telling my office they face effective homelessness, stuck interstate with nowhere else to go. Cases that have come into my office have raised concerns about the exercise of discretion under the relevant public health directions.”
Glass hopes to finish the “swift investigation” by the end of the year, so she can help the department identify if urgent improvements are needed.
Among those who have had permits refused is Allan Meers who lives near Ballarat in central Victoria. Meers left his home about two months ago to visit a terminally ill friend in Lismore in northern NSW.
He has twice applied to return and had his application refused both times, despite the Lismore local government area not recording a positive Covid-19 case in the past four weeks.
Meers made a complaint to Glass’ office on Wednesday after hearing of her investigation and is urging the Victorian government to implement a plan to bring its residents home before Christmas.
“The Victorian government currently classifies the whole of NSW as an extreme red zone. This is a convenient lie,” Meers said.
“It allows the government to stop all travel to and from NSW. The inconvenient truth is that many postcodes in NSW are Covid-free. The NSW government recently released the northern region of the state from all lockdown restrictions – so why hasn’t the Victorian government done the same?”
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said it was bureaucrats and not the government who ruled on travel permits and that it was a “very challenging” job because they were often telling people news they did not want to hear.
But he hinted that more would be done to bring residents back from NSW, though it would be challenging to accept people coming from higher-risk parts of the state such as south-west Sydney.
“The teams of public servants who make those decisions take their responsibilities very seriously, they’re all doing their best, we’re getting people home from NSW and we will be making further positive announcements about that soon,” Andrews said. “We will get everybody home.”
Glass will examine whether the health department’s exercise of discretion involving decisions on interstate travel permits, exceptions and exemptions were correctly weighted against relevant human rights considerations.
“Decisions about border permits will invariably involve a balance of individual rights with those of the broader community. But it will be important to ensure that balance has been fairly assessed,” she said.