Why Australians are not paying $58.6m in NSW hotel quarantine bills

Over two years, the NSW government issued invoices for hotel quarantines amounting to a total of $322.5 million. Of that, $263.9 million has been settled, and $700,000 was paid only in the last two and a half weeks.

Revenue NSW has issued debt recovery orders – which impose additional costs and are the first step before enforcement action – for 63,354 overdue invoices, with a total outstanding of $52.6 million. Meanwhile, $7.4 million is being paid through active payment plans, which could start before or after the debt collection order.

Many returning Australians and travelers believe they should not pay because the quarantine was for the benefit of the public and some legal practitioners support this view.

Professor Kim Rubenstein at the University of Canberra said there was a legal basis for the Australian government to require people entering the country to enter quarantine, but it was less certain whether they could charge citizens for the privilege.

“There may be a constitutional question as to whether there is a legitimate charge on Australians to re-enter the country after they were forced to go into quarantine,” Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein said the High Court had previously found that Australian citizens had the right to return – but this did not necessarily apply to permanent and temporary residents and visitors.

Rubenstein said that if the charges were contested in civil court and won, states could be forced to refund those who have already paid. Revenue NSW has not yet taken court action on any unpaid quarantine bills.

The Sun-Herald Spoke to several people who refuse to pay and plan to fight in court if necessary.

One of them is Doug, who requested his last name be withdrawn, an American with an Australian wife and stepchildren. He divides his time between Utah, where he is a medical doctor, and his family in Queensland.

“I think how harsh their policies were and how they treated us led to a lot of human rights violations,” Doug said.

“Fourteen days was just that much. I was in quarantine, without any symptoms, testing negative. People in Sydney who were on the street among everyone when they tested positive were able to go home and do home quarantine. I just don’t understand that.”

Passengers were quarantined in hotels for 14 days upon arrival in Australia during the pandemic.
Passengers were quarantined in hotels for 14 days upon arrival in Australia during the pandemic. Credit:james brickwood

As the spouse of an Australian citizen, Doug was not required to apply for an exemption to enter the country during the pandemic, but the quarantine requirement meant he saw his family much less than usual, with isolation “A heavy toll”.

Doug visited four times while the border was closed. The first stint in quarantine was Brisbane and free, but he repeated the experience three times in Sydney, racking up $9000 in debt.

Doug told The Sun-Herald He had recently received his first invoice, and there were several late charges on it, even though he had never received the previous one.

Kirsten Postlethwaite-Thomas, an Australian citizen who has lived in Britain for 20 years, said she was yet to pay her bill even after being in quarantine in Sydney in May 2021. Her last two flights were canceled for free before the cut-off of July 2020. Had provided quarantine and proof, but was still being chased for payment.

As of 17 May, Revenue NSW had waived 60,105 invoices valued at $363.7 million, as the customer provided proof that they were booked prior to 18 July 2020.

Rebecca, who requested a pseudonym, was working on a scheduled time contract in the United States when the pandemic began.

She said she would not pay her bill for hotel quarantine because embassies had given jobs and accommodation to Australians overseas, and she acted according to that advice.

Sarah, who requested a pseudonym, said she completed the quarantine in Sydney in December 2020 after being stranded in London without work for several months.

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She was 25 and returned to Australia without any savings, and had to move to Centrelink, but her request for a waiver was denied on the grounds of hardship. She was offered a payment plan, but was paid in full when she finally got the job.

On May 17, a total of 35 loans worth $118,100 were canceled due to hardship or other exceptional circumstances.

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