Australians are risking a loophole in the trans-Tasman travel agreement to return to their lives and loved ones overseas, with one teacher using the bubble as a backdoor to flout the country's outward travel ban.
Art teacher Tim Byrnes flew to Auckland last week before travelling to Istanbul, Turkey on Friday night. He will then catch another flight to Russia, where he had been living since 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reports. Byrnes had returned to Australia in January 2020 for a legal matter and to visit his parents, but became stuck when the pandemic resulted in widespread border closures.
According to the SMH, Australians who are ordinarily overseas residents do not require an exemption to leave the country, but Byrnes did not realise this until the deadline had expired. He then applied for an exemption, arguing his job and girlfriend were in Moscow, but his application was refused.
Now, the trans-Tasman travel arrangement has provided Byrnes with an opportunity to return to his life in Russia, where he is eligible for residency.
"I've escaped!" he said, as reported by the SMH. "I get to go back to my life."
The trans-Tasman bubble officially opened on Monday, allowing Australians and New Zealanders to travel freely between the two countries without being required to quarantine on arrival. However, the agreement does not prevent Australians from using New Zealand as a gateway to further travel - and according to local media, several Australians are eager to exploit the loophole.
Speaking to the The Sun-Herald, Elaine, from Sydney's northern beaches, said she planned to use New Zealand as a backdoor to her family in Britain if she could not get an exemption to Australia's travel ban.
Since March last year, Australian citizens and permanent residents must be granted an exemption in order to travel overseas. The measure was implemented to mitigate the risk of travellers bringing COVID-19 back to Australia on their return.
People travelling to countries not classified as high-risk can request an exemption from the travel ban on compassionate grounds, to conduct urgent business, or if they are travelling for longer than three months. However, exemptions are hard to obtain.
And exploiting the trans-Tasman loophole is a risky move. Last Sunday, Australia Health Minister Greg Hunt updated the Biosecurity Act, requiring Australians who travel overseas via New Zealand - like Byrnes - to justify their actions on either compassionate or urgent medical grounds when they eventually return to Australia. Those who fail to provide sufficient justification may face a large fine, or even imprisonment.
Hunt reiterated to local media the trans-Tasman exemption to the international travel ban "only applies where a person is leaving Australia to travel to and stay in New Zealand, not where the traveller intends to travel to New Zealand for the purpose of... travelling to a third country."
"Travellers should be aware that international travel to any other country continues to pose a significant risk to public health," he said.
Under the Biosecurity Act, people who fail to comply with an entry requirement can face an AU$6660 fine. Failure to comply with an emergency determination is punishable by AU$66,600, five years imprisonment, or both.
However, some experts have criticised the measures as unlawful.
Speaking to local media, Byrnes said he had no plans to return to Australia in the immediate future and was unconcerned about potential fines - or jail time.
"Once the biosecurity threat goes, I think it's a chapter that the government will probably want to forget," he said.