By Cameron Algie
NOTE: Since this article was written, it is likely that travel requirements will have changed. This article highlights one person’s experience preparing to travel overseas and return home to Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pursuant to regulations established by the Federal Department of Home Affairs and Border Force in responding to COVID-19, I was required to get permission to depart Australia. There were approximately 6 conditions. The one relevant to me was that I was required to receive ‘urgent medical treatment which was not available in Australia.’
Preparing for Travel
In preparing to depart Australia, there was an extensive amount of work I was required to undertake. This included:
- Reading the numerous internet sites for Home Affairs as well as the Victorian State Government to fully understand requirements.
- Speaking with the COVID Hot Line phone numbers to cross-check the process.
- Engaging with a Travel Agent to confirm travel restrictions, pricing, and arrangements.
- checking the web site of my country of destination to check travel restrictions of that country and noting they might change.
- Completing my vaccinations, undergoing a PCR test 72 hours prior to travel and return a negative result. On arriving I was required to have a further PCR test within 24 hours of arrival. This meant knowing where and how these PCR tests were carried out.
To begin my travel process, I was required to gain approval of the Federal Government to depart Australia. To do this, it was necessary to complete an on-line form and include evidence. I included three medical letters from my GP, my Australian ophthalmologist and one from my treating overseas ophthalmologist, a draft itinerary plus a copy of my passport.
I also included a flight and travel itinerary from my airline although this was to some degree nonsensical, as I could not formally book a return ticket until I was sure I had the required permissions. So, a draft itinerary was prepared by my Travel Agent.
To my surprise, my application was approved within 24 hours on 12th September 2021. However, to return to Australia, I was then required to have the cap on persons allowed to enter Australia lifted by 1!
Logic might say that, on providing permission to leave Australia, the Federal Government might also automatically provide permission to re-enter. This was not the case. In what I believe was a failure in Government policy, quarantine controls were dealt with by State Governments leading to diverse policies. In addition, the airline was required to approach the Federal Government on my behalf. The Federal Department which controlled the cap was the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRD&C), which includes Civil Aviation. However, there was no provision on their web site whatsoever, for an application to be made.
Accordingly, I then went back to my local Federal Member of Parliament, a person no less than the Federal Treasurer, the Hon Josh Frydenberg, MP, to approach the DITRD&C. His office responded to advise that such approach must be made by the Airline.
My Travel Agent then approached Emirate Airlines who in turn advised that they would not make such an application. A subsequent approach to the airline including a response from the Federal Member of Parliament’s Office which confirmed the airline must make the application, led to the airline responding by saying that they required ‘a letter of support’ from the State Government that I could return before they would take up the matter with DITRD&C’.
In the interim, I approached the Victorian Government’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) COVID Response Team to obtain an exemption from the requirement to undertake compulsory hotel quarantine. This application was required to be made online. The website clearly advised that such applications could be made for urgent reasons with supporting medical advice. I obtained this medical advice from my local GP. My application pointed out that as a blind person, hotel quarantine was in fact dangerous in several respects, including the need for personal support, reading warnings, menus and other instructions and in particular, evacuation of the hotel in the event of emergency, etc. My application was supported by a letter from my local treating GP. This application was rejected within 24 hours without providing any reasons and quoting their website about dangers of COVID, as if I needed to know!
I once again approached my Federal Member asking if they might assist in obtaining the ‘letter of support’. The Federal Member asked my local State Member of Parliament who in turn asked the State Shadow Minister for Health to assist. Within 24 hours, the Shadow Minister for Health had obtained from the Under Secretary for the Minister of Health the letter which finally gave clear authority to the airline that they could approach the Federal DITRD&C, to lift the cap.
Further delays occurred within the airline whose Head Office had to be involved.
The ticket was finally issued only two days before my scheduled departure date. However, I was prepared to travel and arrangements with hotel and medical treatment were in place.
I was expecting to challenge the earlier State Government decline of my application to undertake home, not hotel quarantine, but fortunately, on the 1st November 2021, these requirements were removed for returning travellers who tested negative and who were double vaccinated.
No Travel Insurance covering costs incurred as a result of COVID was available. I had to be prepared for possible additional hotel or airline expenses. (I have since heard insurance covering Covid related expenses is available in Singapore. I do not know of its suitability.)
My experience identified a number of major issues for people with vision impairment. These included, but are not limited to:
- To have your reasons for travel justified with supporting evidence.
- A capacity to access, read and understand, the many State and Federal websites.
- A capacity to access Federal Government Travel Alerts.
- To access and understand the travel restrictions in my country of destination.
- To contact my country’s Embassy to double check travel requirements.
- To obtain letters from supporting doctors. This included support from my treating GP who had to write several letters on my behalf and sign forms.
- To have the support of a reliable Travel Agent who knows your requirements.
- Maintain a capacity to write complex letters to Federal and State Parliamentarians and attach relevant supporting documents.
- To keep travel limited to only those countries considered essential. (Leave good old sightseeing until the Pandemic settles down).
- To be able to gain the assistance of family, or others who might help with form filling and attaching documents, records, and other details.
- To be capable of reading emails and keeping in touch with travel changes.
- Be financially prepared for additional unforeseen costs.
- Be prepared to travel at a moment’s notice.