The inequity of quarantine fees

Living through the pandemic in the UK

I’m a young New Zealander living in Glasgow, Scotland. Like many recent Antipodean graduates, I made the decision to travel to Europe and then move to the United Kingdom to take advantage of a cheaper cost of living and to gain international work experience. 

In my first year overseas I supported myself through paid waitressing work as well as volunteering my time in return for board. I applied and paid for a work visa for the UK, costing $4,500 AUD inclusive of the UK Immigration Healthcare Surcharges. I have since lived in Glasgow for four years, first working as a primary teacher, and for the past year I have worked in an entry-level role in recruitment. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was made redundant, then denied Universal Credit payments – the UK’s core benefit – because of my immigration status. This left me with no income. Thankfully my partner, who is also a Kiwi on a work visa, is still employed, meaning I have the opportunity to find new work. But many others are not as fortunate as me. Some have families to support.

My younger sister and younger cousin were also in London when COVID-19 hit. It made sense for them to return home because they were still living out of their backpacks. I was relieved when the New Zealand government made them self-isolate. Both were tested multiple times, and the police also visited them at home to gently ensure they were following the guidelines on self-isolation. Since then New Zealand has created government quarantine facilities that I also absolutely support.

It has been devastating to watch my Glaswegian neighbours live in fear that this virus may take away their loved ones when I have watched my family back home live healthy lives away from this horrific disease. Like New Zealanders, our communities in Scotland have shared those efforts to protect lives: yet my cousins were getting together for drinks back home while my colleagues’ father spent three weeks on a ventilator. 

However, it’s not the fault of New Zealanders overseas that we are facing this situation. We have lost an upwards of 2,400 lives in Scotland, a country with a similar population to New Zealand. There is no mandatory government quarantine on arrival in the United Kingdom but we continue to work together in our communities to reduce the reproduction rate of COVID-19. In July there have been eight consecutive days in Scotland with no deaths – a testament to the will of the people to stay home and protect lives, just as people did in New Zealand and Australia. 


A user-pays system for quarantine

Earlier this month New South Wales announced that it would start charging returning citizens and residents for two weeks’ mandatory quarantine, and South Australia introduced a similar regime. The New South Wales government website states that the quarantine fee in New South Wales includes accommodation and food at AUD 2800 per adult or AUD 3710 for a couple. At the end of the two-week period, individuals have thirty days to pay the bill or to set up a payment plan. All states (except Tasmania, which has self-quarantine, and Victoria, which is currently not allowing inbound international flights) are now charging this fee.

On 19 July, after the opposition National Party proposed a NZD 3,000 quarantine fee, the Labour-led government in New Zealand announced it was ‘actively considering’ this fee.

I followed these developments closely, especially those in New Zealand. I heard the opposition’s spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, refer to ‘Kiwis returning from high-paying careers or expensive holidays in Europe.’ This phrase didn’t match my experience of what I was doing overseas, or the position of most other New Zealanders abroad. I don’t have a high-paying career and I’m not on an expensive holiday. There are hundreds of people like myself who are facing mounting financial pressure. It is false to assume that all those of us abroad are in a privileged position when in reality many of us left home in search of opportunities, experience and jobs during the beginning stages of our working lives. 

It also seemed arbitrary to impose a fee on those who happen to be living overseas in 2020, when this is a global public health issue affecting every country, and especially unjust towards Māori as tangata whenua.

Imposing fees on New Zealanders coming home is not just unfair and cruel; it’s a barrier on our right to return to our country. I know that many New Zealanders are truly empathetic to the circumstances expatriates find themselves in but unfortunately this is not being reflected in our government’s proposals. What has already been an incredibly distressing time has now resulted in increased anxiety for those of us caught between the lack of support in our adopted countries and the mounting financial barriers to returning home. 

The best way to end that distress, as well as the division that has been inflamed since the announcement of this policy, is for the government to make clear that it will continue publicly-funded quarantine consistent with the delivery of other public health services in our country. When you break your arm, you aren’t charged the cost of your stay in the hospital. We cover that as a country, through general taxation. Quarantine, as a public health measure, should be treated in the same way.

To be clear, no one I’ve spoken to opposes quarantining on arrival. The virus poses a serious public health threat and we all agree that it is imperative that everyone adopts this precaution to reduce the risk of an outbreak. There is utmost respect for the way our government has carefully planned and provided hotels for us to shelter in. 

We also accept that there is a cost to quarantining. But when asking who should bear that cost it’s worth looking at New Zealand’s COVID-19 Recovery Budget from earlier in the year. $50 billion was set aside in that Budget, and it is estimated that it would cost around 1 per cent of that ($500m) to maintain publicly funded quarantine until the end of the year. 

1 per cent of the Government’s Covid Recovery Budget is a good investment to help keep 100% of New Zealanders safe and Covid-free.


Time to organise, time to act

While in Australia some decisions have already been made, the New Zealand government is still considering the fairest way forward. So now’s the time to express concern – and also to put pressure on the government to make the right call.

We have set up a Facebook group called ‘Team of Six Million’, a play on one of Jacinda Ardern’s favourite phrases, to share our stories. A petition is circulating and will be presented to the government. Expatriates are sharing letters sent to MPs and encouraging others to pass similar messages on.

When I first left New Zealand, five years ago, I didn’t think I’d have to write a piece about how to go through quarantine on my return home. But now that we’re here, I hope the values of compassion and kindness that have become linked to Jacinda Ardern’s government can be shown to mean something. I hope, when it comes to quarantining costs, they’re not just empty words. For the government, this is a real test of their commitments – and their values.


Image: Marco Heersink

Lydia Surplis

Lydia Surplis is a qualified teacher from Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, living in Glasgow on a five-year work visa.

More by Lydia Surplis ›

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