By Sean Parnell
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The unit within Queensland Health that helps decide who can enter the state lost dozens of staff before public complaints forced Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to intervene.
The Health Directions Exemption Service unit handles requests from people looking to enter Queensland despite tough border restrictions.
It can give the green light to those who believe their circumstances should prevent them being caught up in the travel ban on COVID-19 hotspots, or having to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days.
Queensland was largely open before the Sydney outbreak began in June, however the spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus across southern states prompted hotspot declarations, travel restrictions and a corresponding increase in applications for exemptions.
When the hotel quarantine system came close to capacity in August, the state government controversially announced a “pause” on new arrivals, rather than risk the Delta variant leaking out. Home quarantine is only now becoming a more viable option.
At the time, there were 4228 outstanding applications for an exemption, and the outcry over travellers facing yet another hurdle prompted Ms Palaszczuk to allow a limited number of people into the state.
In September, with thousands of people still stranded and continued pleas for compassion, Ms Palaszczuk acknowledged the exemptions unit was under pressure.
She promised more staff to take it “up to around 100 staff”.
“I have made it a priority and I have spoken to senior levels of the government about this issue,” the Premier said at the time.
Now, the government has revealed, in answering a question on notice from the opposition, that the unit lost more than 40 per cent of its staff in the first half of 2021.
The unit started the year with 64.5 full-time equivalent staff, but by July had only 37.9 - many moved to other roles in government - before increasing to 65.5 in August and 92 in September, just short of the Premier’s promised 100.
A Queensland Health spokeswoman said unit staffing "fluctuated to meet demand which, in turn, has been dictated largely by whether border restrictions are in place due to case numbers in other states".
The spokeswoman said that on July 15, the unit had 544 open exemption applications, which rose to 3189 by August 15. On Friday, there were 3233 open applications.
According to data released separately, there were 3704 exemption applications lodged between August 25 and September 8. Of those, 282 were approved during that period, 45 denied, and another 1655 closed due to changing circumstances.
Additional staff have helped reduce the backlog of applications, however some cases still appear to require media attention before being resolved.
Opposition health spokeswoman Ros Bates said the unit “lacks leadership and compassion”.
“My biggest problem is the exemption unit only acts when the media spotlight is on them,” Ms Bates said.
“I just don’t understand why the State Government isn’t making this a priority. They need to get Queenslanders home instead of prioritising the needs of celebrities.”