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Australia Victorian government yet to send a hotel quarantine bill, with tens of millions owed

13:12  19 february  2021
13:12  19 february  2021 Source:   theage.com.au

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The Victorian government is yet to send an invoice to more than 16,000 returned travellers who owe the state tens of millions of dollars in unpaid hotel quarantine accommodation fees.

More than two months after the revamped hotels program began on December 7, taxpayers have covered at least $20 million for international returnees to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Melbourne.

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The backlog of invoices risks another blow to the state government's credibility in enforcing coronavirus restrictions after just 845 of 19,000 fines handed out by Victoria Police were paid by October last year, triggering an admission by police - later reversed - that they would not pursue the fines in court.

In addition, the Victorian government lacks the legal power to make interstate travellers pay for their 14-day stays in quarantine hotels. Legislation rushed through days after the scheme restarted on December 7 provided only for international travellers.

A government spokeswoman confirmed that 447 interstate travellers have consequently received a free 14-day stint in Melbourne's quarantine hotels since December 7 as Premier Daniel Andrews closed the state's borders to New South Wales and Brisbane over the new year period.

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Until Mr Andrews put an indefinite halt on Victoria's reset hotel quarantine program last week following a third leak of COVID-19, returning Australians were to be charged $3000 per adult, $1000 for each additional adult in the room and $500 for children aged three to 18 - similar prices to states such as NSW.

Taxpayers have copped the cost ahead of the Andrews government distributing invoices.

A government spokeswoman refused to confirm how much money is owed. However, on a conservative estimate that all 16,425 travellers were made up solely of families of four, the total outstanding bill would be $20.5 million. If every traveller was a solo adult, taxpayers would be $48.74 million out of pocket.

The spokeswoman said the government planned to start sending out invoices later this month and could pursue outstanding bills in court if a valid reason to avoid payment was not provided.

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"Legislation to enable the fee scheme for hotel quarantine was passed in December 2020, and work has been occurring since then to develop the systems required to support the program," she said.

"This included building the billing system and finalising the processes for fee waivers and payment plans."

In response, opposition spokesman for police and community safety David Southwick said hotel quarantine charges "were always an afterthought for Daniel Andrews" and Victorian taxpayers would "more than likely have to foot the bill for Labor's incompetence".

"With more than 10 weeks passing and 16,000 returned travellers moving through hotel quarantine - it beggars belief we still don't have an invoice system up and running," Mr Southwick said.

"Daniel Andrews' failed hotel quarantine program has triggered a dangerous outbreak, a billion-dollar lockdown and now left Victorian taxpayers exposed to tens of millions of dollars in unpaid fees."

Almost 22,000 returned travellers went through the state's first iteration of hotel quarantine, where infection-control lapses sparked the second wave of COVID-19 that led to more than 800 deaths. None were charged, in line with an initial policy across all states and territories for governments to cover the cost.

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The Victorian government has no plans to introduce legislation that would allow them to charge interstate travellers, a gap exposed when Victoria shut its border to greater Sydney on December 20.

At the time, Mr Andrews said anybody crossing the border could enter but would be forced into hotel quarantine.

"Do not travel to Greater Sydney. I cannot be clearer than that. When you come home you will finish up in mandatory hotel quarantine," he said.

The state government realised it could not legally charge domestic travellers in the days after, around the same time it adopted a new approach where Victorians stuck in interstate hotspots such as Sydney and Brisbane were simply blocked from returning home.

Mr Andrews said on Friday that Victoria's hotel quarantine would remain out of action indefinitely as government-appointed experts undertook a review into its effectiveness, in particular against new, more virulent strains of COVID-19.

It comes less than three months after the program reopened following a multimillion-dollar inquiry into the initial hotel quarantine scheme.

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