Mourners stranded on wrong side of border by ‘callous and insensitive’ rules

Rebecca Boyce should have been at her mother's funeral on Monday, but was hundreds of kilometres away after her bid for a compassionate border exemption was ignored by Victorian authorities.

Ms Boyce is one of a number of Victorians with dead or dying relatives who have found themselves stranded in NSW despite assurances from the state government that compassionate cases would be given priority for border exemptions.

Victorians with dead or dying relatives have found themselves trapped in NSW and ignored by health authorities.Credit:Jason Robins

On December 28, Ms Boyce and her 12-year-old daughter travelled from their home in Footscray to Pambula Beach on the far south coast of NSW when the area was still considered a "green zone" under Victorian rules.

Ms Boyce's mother had died the day before, but after weighing up her options with her family, Ms Boyce decided to go ahead with the planned holiday after a hard year, having got an exemption to return to Victoria for the funeral.

On New Year's Eve the Victorian government closed the border to the entire state of NSW, and Ms Boyce's original permit to fly home was revoked.

"I understood that I took a risk, but I didn’t realise that there would be nothing for me," she said.

Footscray woman Rebecca Boyce.

On New Year's Day she phoned the Department of Health and Human Services to apply for another compassionate border exemption in order to fly back to Melbourne in time for the funeral.

"Even though the person I spoke to was very compassionate, [after the call] there was no response whatsoever," she said.

The day of Ms Boyce's mother's burial has now come and gone, but she has still not had any contact from the department and has had multiple attempts at reaching out to them go unanswered.

"I was told that they would get in touch as soon as they could," she said. "I've heard nothing at all from DHHS [since]."

The department has said applications for border exemptions are being triaged, with medical emergencies and those with compassionate cases given priority.

Ms Boyce said she understood that there was large demand for the permits, but described the lack of any follow-up to her application as cruel.

"Why would my mother's burial not be considered [as a compassionate case]?" she asked. "Even just to say to me, 'sorry you don't cut it'."

"So I missed my mum’s burial – that's horrid, I just don't understand why – this must have been something that was foreseeable, that things could turn out this way and have the system in place. It's just ridiculous."

COVID reponse commander Jeroen Weimar.Credit:Paul Jeffers

When asked about Ms Boyce's case on Tuesday, Victoria's COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar, said her scenario was exactly the type that should be fast-tracked for compassionate purposes – but would not be drawn on why her application hadn't been approved.

"Absolutely [her case would meet the threshold]. Over the last few days we've seen some very, very difficult situations that people are in and obviously we will do everything we possibly can, we humanly can, to support people in those extreme times of need to get there," he said.

"We have to balance that against the [health] measures."

Pakenham man Medon Loupis also found himself on the wrong side of the border.

Mr Loupis drove to NSW this week to be with his father, who is in palliative care with late stage-four lung cancer on the Central Coast, but due to a quirk in the bureaucratic system, he is now stuck there until further notice.

"Just from talking to Dad, it became very apparent I needed to come up here. I was with him this morning in the aged care facility [and] they said he could kind of die at any time," he said.

"But before I left Victoria I called the Victoria coronavirus hotline and said 'I need to go up to NSW, can I get an exemption to get back in?' "

Despite Health Department staff being "kind and friendly", Mr Loupis was firmly told that they could only process applications from people in NSW who were seeking to return.

He was told he would need to apply for an exemption, but was told "there was no category for us to grant you an exemption".

While the compassionate category exists for people to enter Victoria to be with people who are dying, Mr Loupis was told there is no category for residents of Victoria to re-enter Victoria after providing end-of-life care in NSW.

"So she said it is unlikely your application will be granted," he said.

Both Ms Boyce and Mr Loupis said they were offended by the tone of Victorian authorities in public press conferences.

"This idea that '60,000' other people came back, why can't you?'" said Mr Loupis. "It feels callous and insensitive."

The Victorian government revealed on Tuesday that 57 applications for border exemptions out of a total of 2300 had so far been approved. More than a thousand have been contacted about the progress of their application, while 630 have been asked to provide more evidence.

Mr Weimar continued to urge people with distressing cases to get in contact with the Health Department's coronavirus hotline.

"I know it's been an upsetting and distressing couple of days to try and understand how the border closure will impact you, [but] I would urge you to get in touch with us through our website or through our contact centre so we can assist you as quickly as possible," he said.

On Monday Ms Boyce and her daughter held their own ceremony to honour her mother's life on the banks of the Pambula River.

"It's a very, very poetic and very majestic, beautiful place," she said.

She has now applied again for a third permit, with hopes of getting home to Melbourne by the time her daughter starts back at school.

The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

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