Official confusion has left residents who travelled south during the pandemic living in campsites and showgrounds for months
“The worst thing is just sitting and waiting and hoping something happens and every week and every day nothing happens,” Kathy Raspoort says. She has been stuck, two hours from home, at the New South Wales-Queensland border since July.
“It’s five months down the drain,” she says. “We’re victims of stupidity [and] everyone is afraid because the rules are so inconsistent and they change them constantly.”
Raspoort and her partner, Dick Appel, have spent 17 weeks living in their caravan in Tweed Heads.
Across the Tweed region and the NSW northern rivers, these caravan parks and showgrounds have become scenes reminiscent of wretched migration stories, with thousands of displaced Queenslanders camping out on the border, clutching threads of hope as they wait for permission to return home.
“There have been no rules for people like us who haven’t got a house,” Raspoort says. She is angry that Queensland authorities encouraged people to travel last year; now they won’t allow them to home quarantine in the camper. The past few weeks have been the worst.
“Every time they change the rules, they implement new rules and then they find out they don’t work with all the other rules and they change again. It’s been from left, right and centre about the rules and regulations.
“There’s no compassion.”
‘Confusion and a lack of clarity’
On 19 October, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, announced a plan to “reunite families” that would progressively lift the state’s strict domestic and international border restrictions as vaccination rates rose.
“We have to give certainty,” Palaszczuk said.
For those attempting to return home, the plan – which Queensland Health says is only “a guide” and not a formal public health direction – has simply heaped on more confusion.
Making plans weeks or even days in advance has been impossible as the daily political narrative has bounced from news about vaccination rates to concern that relaxed border policies come with unreasonable strings attached.
The Queensland human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, told Guardian Australia this week that inquiries had spiked significantly since the border plan was announced.
Last financial year, Covid issues accounted for about 16% of people contacting the commission. In the past few weeks, more than a third of human rights inquiries are about Covid.
“We’re very much aware of the confusion and the lack of clarity for people trying to make sense of our border reopening plans,” McDougall said.
“Without a published health direction to accompany the government’s announcement … we don’t have the detail about how the requirements will be applied, whether there will be exceptions and how people might seek them out, and what obligations will fall on business.
There is no clarification on what’s going on. It’s doing my head in
“The lack of detail about how the restrictions might apply doesn’t just confuse people, it also creates a vacuum where misinformation is able to be spread.”
McDougall says trust in government would increase if reasons for public health directives – and evidence to support them – were published alongside government announcements.
“A more robust human rights analysis of some of these measures would also go a long way to finding more appropriate and responsive ways of applying restrictions. When it comes to things like this, they need to be balanced and proportionate, but they also can’t be applied as a blanket rule, one size fits all.”
‘Locked out of our own state’
Amid the confusion, many of those camped in northern NSW say they have attempted to cross the border, believing they were eligible.
They are double-vaccinated and have completed paperwork. When they are turned away, police take photographs of them and escort them back to campsites “like criminals”.
Every tale is unique. But the common thread is that each has come up against inflexible policy and an overwhelmed bureaucracy.
Beau Lyons just wants to be reunited with his wife. She is in Queensland and he is trying to get an exemption from vaccination in order to cross.
In September, Lyons and his wife contracted Covid-19 in Kyogle, northern NSW. They were both hospitalised, his wife in ICU. Now he is living in a tiny teardrop-shaped van, his tinny nearby.
“The police don’t seem to know what’s going on,” he said. “I got a permit, a pass to go through, I got a letter from my doctor saying … I cannot be vaccinated for six months, but the police would not let me through.
“I’ve been arguing this with Queensland Health for some weeks now and again today. They’ve said I can get an exemption, but where is it? It’s been weeks. I’ve been here three weeks waiting. I’ve kept applying since.”
Peter Traunter lives just across the border on the Gold Coast and came into NSW to see his 93-year-old mother for her birthday in October. He believed the border restrictions would be lifted by the time he tried to cross back.
He started feeling “lonely and stir crazy” after three weeks in a campground, so his wife came down to keep him company. Neither of them know when they will get back home.
“[Palaszczuk] changes her mind every couple of days so it’s very confusing,” he said.
Charlie Love and his partner are from Mackay. Their large caravan is adorned with solar panels and a Queensland flag that hangs limp in the humidity.
“We went out for work and on our way back up to go home, the borders closed and we’ve been stuck here for nearly three months,” Love said.
He could re-enter Queensland as an essential worker , but his partner could not and he’s not prepared to leave her behind.
“There is no clarification on what’s going on,” he says. “It’s doing my head in. Mentally, it’s draining because we just don’t know what’s going on. The goalposts have been changed from week to week and that’s the frustrating part about it.
“We’re less of a risk going across that bloody border than those people flying in, coming from hotspots. I already spent a night in the hospital here because I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s very stressful. It’s bullshit. We’ve been locked out of our own state basically and I can’t see how they can legally do it.”
This past week, as the Queensland and federal governments have argued about the potential cost of Covid tests required to enter the state, has done little to soothe anger as the border re-opening approaches.
The state-federal feud was ultimately caused by confusion about whether Queensland would require detailed personal information with test results. That was never the case, though Queensland government websites had published incorrect information that suggested otherwise.
It appears neither government sought to speak to the other to clear up confusion.
In the aftermath, Palaszczuk claimed the federal government had wanted “Queenslanders to get Covid for Christmas”.
The 70% double-dose milestone allowed people from Covid-affected areas to enter Queensland, but those desperate to enter had to wait until the same day to find out the fine print. Palaszczuk said at the time that she expected most people “are going to wait”, given the requirement that entrants arrive by plane only, and quarantine at home for 14 days.
Guardian Australia revealed last week that state’s international border plan would apply different quarantine rules to members of the same family in some cases.
Queensland Health has automatically cancelled some exemption applications in some cases where people had waited more than five weeks without a response. They had initially been told to expect to be contacted within three business days.
An uptick in vaccination rates in Queensland has provided some good news; it now appears the 80% double-dose target will arrive in early December, allowing vaccinated people across ahead of schedule.
The state’s approach has been backed by public polling and other research. A Griffith University survey found 64% of people believed the state’s Covid management had respected human rights.
Supporters of Queensland’s hard line – with some significant justification – point to the relative numbers of Covid cases in Queensland, which has not had a significant community outbreak since the first wave in 2020.
Of almost 2,000 Covid deaths in Australia, only seven have been in Queensland.
People within the state’s borders have been largely unrestricted, compared with the lengthy lockdowns experienced in NSW and Victoria, and the economy has benefitted.
Damian and his partner are living in a campervan at the Mullumbimby showgrounds with two rescue dogs. A few months ago, they sold their home in Victoria and have bought a property in Queensland.
“We turned up the first time, driving, and [while we were] driving things changed. We weren’t told by email or text so hence we got up there with a pass and [police] just laughed at it and revoked it,” he said.
“Look, we were a bit upset. They told us to go back home, which we couldn’t swallow, hence we tried again.
“I just find it all crippling. You’re out of hope. You think, ‘there’s a bit of light, I’ll follow that tunnel’ and it ends up slamming shut.
“We don’t have a home in Melbourne anymore. I’m getting a bit emotional and I’ve had a few moments.
“It’s not good. It’s causing a lot of sadness, a lot of lack of trust and hope.”