At the start of this week, state borders were open, community transmission was down to nothing, travel plans were locked in and it seemed Australia was heading towards a reasonably normal Christmas.
Now, a virus outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches, one week out from the big day, has suddenly thrown life into chaos for thousands of people.
And it could be a particularly big blow to those planning to travel to see loved ones at Christmas.
With 28 cases now linked to the northern beaches cluster and more than 270,000 people in the region asked to stay at home, the entire country is watching and waiting to see how this will affect Christmas travel and summer holiday plans.
States and territories have already rushed out new restrictions in response to the outbreak — some incoming passengers found out about new quarantine rules while they were flying over.
This is everything we know so far about how your plans might be affected by this latest outbreak.
WHERE EXACTLY ARE THE NORTHERN BEACHES?
The northern beaches is a coastal area of northern Sydney that’s home to the tourist meccas of Manly, Narrabeen and Palm Beach.
The area of concern with the current outbreak stretches from Palm Beach down to the Spit Bridge and as far west as Frenchs Forest.
CAN I STILL TRAVEL FOR XMAS?
New state and territory border restrictions differ depending on whether you’re from the northern beaches, Sydney generally, or all of NSW.
These are the current rules. As it’s an unfolding situation, it’s not known how long these restrictions will last.
TASMANIA: Tasmania has declared the northern beaches area a high risk area, along with three locations in the Sydney suburbs of Kirribilli, Peakhurst and Penrith. If you’ve already been to those places you must self-isolate and call the Public Health Hotline on 1800 671 738 to book a test. If you completed a Tas e-Travel registration and indicated you had been in NSW since December 11, your pass will be cancelled and you need to reapply.
QUEENSLAND: Queensland has stopped short of shutting its border to NSW, but there are new rules in light of the northern beaches outbreak.
Anyone who has been in the northern beaches region on or since December 11 and are already in Queensland are required to get tested and quarantine at home or in accommodation until 14 days after the date you left.
If you arrived in Queensland on a flight from Sydney after midnight on December 18, the same rule applies. If you arrive in Queensland after 1am on December 19, you’ll be required to go into hotel quarantine at your own expense, and get tested.
NORTHERN TERRITORY: The northern beaches is considered a virus hot spot and Territorians planning to visit the region should rethink their plans.
People entering the NT after visiting the northern beaches will have to undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine on return to the NT, in Darwin or Alice Springs, at a cost of $2500 per person. Anyone in the NT who was in the northern beaches after December 11 needs to be tested and isolate while waiting for results.
ACT: People in Canberra are advised not to travel to the northern beaches region. People in the ACT who have been there since December 11 must self-isolate and get tested.
VICTORIA: A permit system will be introduced from December 19 for all NSW residents travelling to Victoria.
People who had been in the northern beaches since December 11 will not be allowed into the state.
Victorians are being asked to change travel plans to Sydney, with Health Minister Martin Foley warning mandatory 14-day quarantine could be introduced.
Victoria has divided NSW into three zones — red, amber and green. The northern beaches is a high-risk red zone, which means people who have been there cannot enter.
Greater Sydney is designated as an orange zone, and people arriving to Victoria from that region are encouraged to get tested regardless of COVID symptoms. They must self-isolate while awaiting results.
Regional NSW is considered a green zone, and travellers from that region are asked to monitor for symptoms.
WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Anyone arriving from NSW from Friday onwards will have to quarantine for two weeks.
If you travelled to WA from NSW since December 11, you must get tested and then self-isolate until you get a negative result.
“I understand this is a difficult period for many,” Premier Mark McGowan said on Friday.
“I understand this must be very upsetting for families looking to reunite and spend Christmas together. I, like many people, am worried about what might happen to our friends and
family that live in New South Wales. We’re thinking of them, and we support the people of New South Wales. This is going to be a very different Christmas for many people.”
West Australians are advised not to go into NSW if they don’t need to, and other travellers should avoid travelling from WA via NSW.
SOUTH AUSTRALIA: South Australia is keeping its border open with NSW but anyone in the state who has been in the northern beaches since December 11 must immediately self-isolate. Anyone who has not yet left NSW for SA, but has been to the northern beaches since December 11, will be barred from entering.
People in SA who have been to the Avalon RSL or the Avalon Bowlo since December 11 must immediately go into hotel quarantine.
SA will reintroduce a border permit for anyone entering from interstate. As part of the permit application, travellers will be asked if they have been in the northern beaches since December 11.
HAVE FLIGHTS BEEN CANCELLED?
No airlines have reported changes to their domestic flight schedule, including services in and out of Sydney, in light of the northern beaches outbreak.
“While NSW services are currently operating as normal, changes to customer demand and booking trends may require us to adjust our forward schedule,” Virgin Australia said in a statement.
“Any impacted customers will be provided with options to re-book on alternative services or obtain a travel credit for use at a later stage.”
I’M NOT IN NSW. WHAT ABOUT ME?
If you haven’t recently been to Sydney’s northern beaches and have no upcoming plans to visit, and the above restrictions don’t apply to you, your travel plans are fine at the moment — particularly if your travel plans don’t involve Sydney.
WILL MORE BORDER CHANGES BE ANNOUNCED?
As the situation unfolds, and with the northern beaches cluster rising to 28 cases on Friday, it is possible border restrictions will tighten.
However, it’s not known whether changes will apply to just the northern beaches, greater Sydney or all of NSW.
IS IT TOO LATE TO ESCAPE SYDNEY?
With further border restrictions looking increasingly likely, long queues were forming at Sydney Airport on Friday morning as hundreds of Sydneysiders decided to move interstate trips forward before border changes shut them out.
Travellers should keep in mind that even if they can still enter another state, new quarantine may already apply.
Passengers on a packed Sydney to Perth flight on Thursday afternoon were told by the captain mid-air they would have to quarantine on arrival, with WA having just changed its quarantine rules for NSW visitors.
LOOKS LIKE MY PLANS ARE STUFFED. WHAT DO I DO?
Virgin Australia passengers: Virgin Australia is providing fee-free changes to bookings for travel to March 31, 2021 as part of the airline’s Passenger Promise.
“Due to the evolving situation in NSW, some states and territories are implementing revised border restrictions,” the airline said in a statement on Friday.
“Customers should ensure they check the latest information on the respective government websites prior to travel.”
Qantas and Jetstar passengers: The Qantas Group is also offering flexible options for passengers.
“Qantas and Jetstar are monitoring the latest travel advice from state governments as NSW Health works to manage a COVID cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches,” the company said.
“For most of this year we have offered customers extra flexibility when they book, with the ability to change their flights once with no change fee or hold the value of the ticket as credit – though, a fare difference may apply when re-booking.
“We’ll be contacting customers directly impacted by any flight changes.
“We are seeing a high level of inquiry from customers in Sydney looking to change their travel plans, so we’d ask anyone not travelling in the next 14 days to please avoid calling our contact centre to help us manage these volumes.” Visit the Qantas website or the Jetster website for more information.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRAVEL BUBBLE WITH NZ?
The New Zealand government has issued a statement saying it would monitor the NSW cluster before making a decision on the trans-Tasman bubble.
“As previously stated, a travel bubble won’t start until the first quarter of 2021,” it said in a statement to The Guardian.
“Commencement is dependent on no significant change in the circumstances of either country.
“Decisions on whether or not to proceed with a travel bubble will occur in the new year and we will assess the situation at that point.
“We’re monitoring the situation closely, but it’s too early to make any decisions based on the current community cases in NSW.”