Some left to see their nephew for the first time. Others to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. Or to see their family in Sydney again some 10 months after moving south without them.
And then they were stuck, among the thousands of Victorians who went interstate before Christmas and found themselves without a clear way home.
The path is clearer since Monday when the Andrews government announced a permit system for travellers. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 50,000 had been issued.
But for some Victorians, confusion remains, as well as a lingering unease about being barred from their own state, and worry that others feel so strongly they should never have travelled interstate in the first place.
Those who spoke to Guardian Australia acknowledged they knew there was a risk they could be trapped when they left home. They supported strict public health measures and agreed their inconvenience did not compare to other hardships caused by the pandemic – including the deaths of millions of people.
“People who are in Melbourne, we all went through this pretty horrible thing together, some people had it better, some people had it worse,” Miriam Adams-Schimminger, who left Victoria on 24 November, said.
“But now it’s like: you’re not a Victorian any more because you went and saw your family, you’re not a Victorian any more because you went camping with your phone off. I haven’t been convinced about the public health benefit of not being more empathetic about this.”
Adams-Schimminger, a student at the University of Melbourne, said she travelled to New South Wales to meet her sister’s first baby. On 18 December, she saw the Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, warn against people travelling to and from NSW to the state. The northern beaches cluster had grown to 28 by this stage, an increase of 15 from the previous day.
On 20 December, all of Sydney and the central coast were declared red zones, meaning people who returned from those regions had to quarantine. Adams-Schimminger started to drive south.
But on 31 December, the border closed, and Victorians had to either wait it out, or apply for an exemption.
When cases were recorded in Brisbane last week, restrictions were implemented for Queensland, too.
Greater Sydney (including the Blue Mountains and Wollongong) and greater Brisbane (Brisbane City, Moreton Bay, Redlands, Ipswich and Logan local government areas) are red zones under the system announced on Monday. No travel from these areas is permitted without an exemption, which is only granted for limited circumstances, such as travelling for a funeral.
It means that people like Adams-Schimminger had to find a workaround; in her case, going to stay with a friend in Canberra for the two weeks that should mean she is permitted to travel home.
Others, like Pia Treichel, Edward Taylor and their four-year-old son, left Victoria on 27 December, and only planned on being in regional NSW and Queensland, but were caught out.
The family left Mullumbimby, in northern NSW, on 30 December for Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
On 2 January, Victorians in Queensland were directed to be tested, and on 5 January they recorded a negative test.
They were supposed to stay until 12 January and fly home from Maroochydore, but when the lockdown of Brisbane was announced by the Queensland government on 8 January, and the Victorian government made clear that its position regarding the state was likely to change, they booked flights home.
But they could only get flights from Brisbane leaving 9 January, so Treichel says she checked with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services to ensure they were safe to depart from that airport, and was assured she could.
When they arrived home, the family were met from the plane by DHHS officials and told they would have to spend 14 days in hotel quarantine – despite the earlier advice. They were finally let out on Tuesday morning after testing negative, and after multiple contacts with the DHHS and feeling as if they had “fallen through some bureaucratic crack”.
Treichel says she wholeheartedly supported the Victorian government’s approach to the pandemic, and was forgiving of errors made during the state’s second wave, but the approach to Victorians interstate appeared haphazard and rushed, when it did not need to be.
“We should never have been here in the first place … [and] they had time to get this stuff right.”
Guardian Australia spoke to other travellers, some of whom still had no plan of how to get home, and the message was clear: the government did the right thing, but in the wrong way. The travellers took the risk, but did so thinking there would still be a path home for them.
Not all Victorians stuck interstate are upset about their fate.
Crosley Querin came up to Sydney on 20 December fairly sure that it could be difficult to return. So he drove up, with his cat, and planned to stay as long as he could.
He had family he wanted to spend time with in Sydney, including his “nonna”, who is unable to travel to see him, and will stay until March, if he has to.
“From a lot of people, there’s this sort of ‘how dare you leave Victoria during this period of time’ but I had to see my family.
“I think there’s a NSW-Victorian competition [in terms of Covid-19 response], and I think for the most part Victorians might take it a bit more seriously than NSW people do.”
Victoria has recorded six straight days of zero cases of community transmission.
The emergency services minister, Lisa Neville, apologised on Tuesday for a failure to launch the permit system until almost three hours after it opened.
“A number of people absolutely were inconvenienced, frustrated and probably quite anxious as a result of that. I thank them for their patience and apologise for what happened.”
With Australian Associated Press