An emergency doctor has slammed Australia’s visa policies as “madness” and “dangerous” after he and his partner were told they must fly abroad and return to obtain a family visa.
The federal government has been under fire over requirements baked into some visa categories that compel applicants to be outside the country at the time they are granted. The rules have forced applicants to travel out of Australia, stay offshore for several days, then return – a requirement described as “madness” during a global pandemic.
In response to the criticism, the new immigration minister, Alex Hawke, announced he would allow for the onshore granting of visas across a number of categories, including parent visas, adding to a previous promise by his predecessor, Alan Tudge, that partner visas would be exempt.
But the changes have neither been delivered nor apply to all visa categories.
One emergency doctor, who works for a major metropolitan hospital in Melbourne, told Guardian Australia that his partner was still being told she must travel abroad to obtain her 461 visa, a temporary visa for partners and family of New Zealand citizens.
The doctor, who asked for anonymity, said the government’s official correspondence forced them into an invidious position: travel overseas in mid-February, with all the risk that entails, or risk having his partner’s current visa expire and her lengthy visa application ruined.
“I understand the risks of travelling abroad,” he said. “I’ve seen this virus first-hand. Leaving our home and the country feels wrong, it feels unsafe. It doesn’t actually have any logic to it.”
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They have received no response despite repeated attempts to contact the department for clarification.
If they are forced to do so, the pair plan to travel to New Zealand.
Such a trip would see them mingle with other air passengers travelling from virus-hit parts of the globe, putting them at risk.
It would require four weeks of quarantine, taking up valuable spots across the Tasman, and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s madness, and it’s frankly dangerous,” the doctor said. “I don’t know why the government is giving hotel quarantine places to people like us when we are already in the country and there are so many Australians abroad who are struggling to get home because of restrictions on quarantine places.”
The Labor MP Julian Hill has been campaigning on the issue and plans to introduce a private member’s bill to change the Migration Act and allow the minister special powers to award visas onshore during the pandemic.
Hill submitted a series of questions to the health minister, Greg Hunt, about the health consequences of the current policy and the risk posed by unnecessary travel.
He asked, among other things, whether advice had been sought from the chief medical officer about “whether current visa rules set by Migration Regulations … comply with best medical practice given the enduring Covid-19 pandemic” or whether the minister has “considered the health risks which arise from unnecessary travel”.
Hill said he had had no response.
The government has previously said that it was offering extensions of time to applicants to allow them to remain in Australia without any consequence for their visa process.
But the Guardian revealed last month that the department was relying on an old pro-forma letter to communicate with many applicants, which said nothing of time extensions, and warned them explicitly that they needed to make immediate plans to travel overseas.