(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

The Victorian ombudsman’s report on the Andrews government’s border closure earlier this year contains the stuff of cruel nightmares for the Victorians forced into a Kafkaesque process in which they were denied the ability to return home.

The report, by Deborah Glass, is nothing short of extraordinary in its depiction of an unresponsive, almost cruel bureaucracy determined to keep Victorians from going home. The term “public servant” has seldom been less apt.

An important issue Glass grappled with was whether those people stranded outside Victoria when Premier Daniel Andrews declared that exemptions would not automatically be granted to returning Victorians on July 20, or when no one was permitted to enter from New South Wales without an exemption three days later, were hard done by in that decision.

For weeks before the closure, the Andrews government had repeatedly warned Victorians that the border with NSW might be shut, and that non-essential travel to NSW should not be undertaken.

On July 10, Victoria’s COVID commander, Jeroen Weimar, said: “If you’re a Victorian in NSW you should have left already; you need to come home now. The chances are that at some point in the coming hours or days we will be forced to close, to upgrade NSW to red, to close the border.”

On July 15, Weimar warned: “If you’re a Victorian and you are still in NSW, time is ticking … You have to get home.”

Andrews repeated the warnings in the following days in the lead-up to the closure.

Do those stranded therefore have no cause for complaint? Didn’t they heed the warnings? One quoted complainant was a holidaymaker who chose to travel to the other end of NSW, and then complained they didn’t have time to get back. But those self-indulgent cases appear to be a minority. As Glass’ report shows, many were simply unable to return when the government demanded they do so.

Some booked flights to return home but were bumped from their flights on the eve of the closure. Couples split up, with one returning to Victoria and another staying to pack up belongings, only to be caught out. Others had applied for and were given an exemption to return before July 20, and had packed to go, but were stopped by the tighter closure.

Others were unable to leave where they had travelled to — they were caring for loved ones who had no alternative arrangements. Others left Victoria to attend funerals or farewell dying relatives and were prevented from returning, often with previously approved returns being disallowed. Some expected to be able to remain in place as long as needed, but found their circumstances changed, and were prevented from returning.

The Victorian Health Department’s management of the exemption application process bordered on the farcical. Despite increasing the number of staff to handle applications, the report shows “staff responsible for categorising and prioritising applications were expected to complete 50 per hour: an average of almost one every 30 seconds”.

Their demands for supporting documents reached absurd extremes — “statutory declarations, proof of residence, proof of ownership of animals, letters from medical professionals, bank or financial statements, and statements of relationship to people who were dying or funeral notices”, all from people not actually living at home.

Claims that people were “primary carers” were in the first instance disbelieved, even when backed by letters from medical professionals. A woman who had changed her name after marriage faced demands for her birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce certificate and driving licence. Some simply never heard back the department, or were given no reason why they were rejected. Many double-vaccinated people were rejected out of hand.

Only 8% of 33,000 applications were approved.

Glass’ other objection to the argument that those outside Victoria had plenty of time to return was that the border closure was irrationally tight, barring people from NSW communities with zero COVID cases from returning.

Boarders at Yanco Agricultural College who were forced to return home to Victoria after the border closure when the school shut were initially banned, despite there being zero cases in the Leeton area — a factor that the Health Department secretary waved away as “irrelevant” when the ombudsman pointed out how irrational this was.

In some cases, the rejections look wilfully cruel, like bureaucrats were revelling in their capacity to make life miserable.

An application to visit a relative with terminal cancer was deemed not sufficiently “serious” to warrant an exemption; people who needed to return to obtain cancer treatment were told to get it in NSW instead. Applications were rejected as “expired” because the department failed to consider them before the date of proposed travel — and this happened multiple times to the same applicants, as if they were being trolled by the department.

The report shows the Andrews government in microcosm: incompetent, revelling in overinflated state powers, possessed of a punitive attitude toward its citizens, as reflected in the dramatic difference in the level of COVID fines in that state compared with others — consistent with the longer-term pre-pandemic practice of fining its citizens far more than any other state. (Saul Eslake is the sleuth who has unearthed both of those traits.)

The cost of Andrews’ hardline crackdown wasn’t borne by the conspiracy theorists and extremists cavorting on the streets of Melbourne, but by ordinary Victorians forced by life circumstances to travel out of their state, and then treated to a bureaucratic hell when they tried to return.

The ombudsman has mapped that hell in detail.