Australia failed to rescue citizens during the global Covid emergency – we can’t let it happen again | Trent Zimmerman

The release this week of a review into Australia’s Covid response has attracted wide attention for its headline recommendations at a time when Covid-19 now rarely reaches our front pages.

The Fault Lines review, led by former public servant Peter Shergold, is critical of the extent of restrictions, border closures and lockdowns put in place by state and federal governments – particularly so in relation to extended school closures. It raises concern about those parts of our society either disproportionately affected by Covid itself or the levels of support provided by government.

Overall Australia did much better than most nations in managing the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. There is nowhere else in the world I would have preferred to be than Australia during Covid-19, and that’s a good segue into the two aspects of our Covid management which I argue need much more analysis and review to get the lessons right.

There is no doubt that the early closure of our international borders severely limited the spread of Covid-19 in Australia at the time before vaccines and when it mattered most. However, the flipside of the border closures was to have a profound and awful impact on many Australians and those living in our community. Advocating for hundreds of those trapped overseas or seeking to travel on urgent and often compassionate grounds became the busiest part of my constituent work as an MP. At times, the circumstances were heart-breaking.

Understandably, many Australians living overseas wanted or needed to return to the relative safety Australia offered – yet we made it impossibly difficult for tens of thousands of people. And many residents here on temporary visas wanted to stay but we made that hard as well, with consequences that are still reverberating today.

In the early stages of the pandemic the federal government urged Australians to return home unless they were confident of their circumstances in the country they lived if they were longer-term expats. As the borders tightened, mandatory quarantine became the national approach with limitations put in place by the national and state caps on international arrivals.

These caps rarely met demand and, combined with the shutdown of much of international aviation, Australians could find themselves waiting months and months before they were able to return. Australians seeking to leave the country needed permission to do so and faced the challenges of returning if they succeeded in gaining exemptions to travel.

Most of the constituents I heard from were Australians who had thought they had safe and secure work arrangements overseas which evaporated as the pandemic dragged on, sometimes leaving them in dire financial circumstances. Some were tourists caught by the speed in which borders closed – including those on cruise ships left bouncing between ports hoping for a nation to let them disembark.

We must learn from these cases and the starting point is our capacity to evacuate Australians caught overseas in times of emergency. The Australian government sponsored scores of dedicated rescue flights; particularly where commercial flights became unavailable. Understandably, those flights could not reach every city or nation where Australians were to be found. Yet time and again, I had reports of other nations managing the evacuation of its citizens in a more comprehensive way.

We need to look at this – how do we improve our capacity to bring Australians home and do other nations do it better? This is of enduring importance, not just in times of a pandemic but whenever natural disasters, war or civil unrest necessitate this kind of support.

Fundamentally, we must see it as a right and therefore a core responsibility of federal and state governments to allow our own citizens to come home when they need to. This surely must be one of the benefits of citizenship.

Similarly, we should learn from our experience with the quarantine system put in place. Hotel quarantine was the backbone of the Australian effort and, whilst it had its detractors, it did make sense. What failed was the ever-changing passenger caps in each state – decisions sometimes made for political reasons at ridiculously short notice with little regard for the logistics of trying to secure international flights to operate to Australia.

The other lesson of Covid-19, which was the subject of specific recommendations in the Fault Lines report, was the support given to those living in Australia on temporary visas – from international students to those with work visas. We invite foreigners to come to Australia in those categories not out of kindness but because it’s in Australia’s economic and broader interests. Yet we largely left them without support during the pandemic. To put it mildly, we weren’t great hosts. The long-term consequences have included the labour shortages some sectors are experiencing today.

We must be prepared to learn from what we did well but also how we can do better and this report is an important step on that journey.

Trent Zimmerman is the former Liberal federal member for North Sydney

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