Legal update: Who are ‘essential travellers’ during COVID-19 border restrictions?

By Sandra Barry >>

The states and territories have passed separate legislation restricting domestic interstate travel, which has significant implications for some employers.

The following states and territories have implemented interstate border restrictions:

  • Queensland from 12am on Wednesday, 25 March 2020

  • South Australia from 4pm on Tuesday, 24 March 2020

  • Tasmania from Friday, 20 March 2020

  • Western Australia from Tuesday, 24 March 2020

  • Northern Territory from 4pm on Tuesday, 24 March 2020.

Each of these jurisdictions have declared the restrictions will apply to all travellers arriving by air, land and sea. Travellers will need to comply with strict quarantine requirements or be refused entry. 

Each jurisdiction has declared that the strict border restrictions and quarantine requirements will not apply to persons who fall within ‘essential travellers’ exemptions.

Which states and territories have not implemented interstate border restrictions?

New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have announced that their borders will remain open to interstate travellers. However, based on the rapid changes occurring as states and territories attempt to deal with coronavirus, it is highly likely that some form of border restrictions in these jurisdictions will also be implemented.

Essential traveller exemptions

The rules for interstate border restrictions are slightly different in each state and territory but exemptions for essential travellers appear to be relatively the same. The essential travellers categories are generally:

  • national and state/territory security and governance

  • health services and essential medical treatment

  • transport, freight and logistics services

  • skills critical to maintaining key industries or businesses

  • emergency services workers

  • cross border community members (for the purposes of work and obtaining essential goods and services)

  • passing through (excluding Tasmania)

  • compassionate grounds

  • FIFO workers (that are linked to an essential traveller category and are able to provide evidence of their employer and location they are travelling).

Essential traveller exemption applications

At the time of writing this article, the legislative directives for each state and territory are not fully in place or complete. Due to the complexities in implementing border restrictions, it is likely that these directives and legislative provisions will change rapidly.

In Queensland, essential travellers are required to complete an online application to obtain a Queensland Entry Pass and have documentation supporting their status available. Queensland Police have also indicated they are working on an ‘identifier’ (a visible sticker) to place on vehicles regularly passing across the border. Police have also closed roads to support the Queensland restrictions.

In Tasmania and the Northern Territory, essential travellers are required to complete arrival forms at available border access points. In some circumstances, essential travellers will need to have applied to the relevant government authority to obtain the necessary exemptions before travel.

South Australia has only stated that police will be stopping persons at checkpoints, taking details and making enquiries as to the person’s movements and reason for travelling into South Australia. Because of the limited guidance, we recommend that essential travellers have documentation supporting their status available.

In Western Australia, essential travellers are required to complete forms on arrival at points of disembarkation, road checkpoints or stations. For persons entering by road, there is a further requirement that only ‘designated roads’ be used (Victoria Highway or Eyre Highway).

Quarantine conditions for essential travellers

Tasmania requires essential travellers to comply with strict quarantine conditions, including self-accommodating and monitoring symptoms for COVID-19.

At this stage, it does not appear that essential travellers need to comply with quarantine conditions in other state and territories. However, this position may change rapidly.

What this means for employers

Employers with interstate operations will need to ensure that travel complies with interstate border restrictions and that operations fall within the essential traveller categories.

In Queensland, employers need to ensure that they have provided employees required to travel interstate with a Queensland Entry Pass.

For other interstate travel, employers will need to consider what application or exemption forms and documentation needs to be available to employees ahead of interstate travel. This will include determining whether exemptions need to be submitted and granted by relevant authorities before travel.

There are strict monetary penalties for both individual employees (of up to $62,800) and corporate employers (of up to $250,000) where border restrictions and essential traveller requirements are not complied with.

Employers with interstate operations affected by the interstate border restrictions can contact us for further advice.

Sandra Barry is a senior associate at Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers, based in Brisbane. Input into this report also came from Cooper Grace Ward partners Belinda Winter and Annie Smeaton.

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