The Victorian-NSW border permit exemption system was 'unjust' and 'even inhumane', Victoria's Ombudsman Deborah Glass has found.
In a scathing report tabled in parliament on Monday, Ms Glass - who was responsible for the investigation into Wodonga Council's $18 million waste management levy overcharge - said the border closure led to "some of the most questionable decisions" she had seen in more than seven years as Ombudsman.
Ms Glass revealed staff had just 30 seconds to categorise and prioritise applications for border exemptions.
Of the 33,252 exemption applied for during the border closure, just eight per cent, or 2736 applications, were granted.
Mr Holmes had travelled from Goondiwindi in Queensland to Wodonga, before being told to get back across the border because he had not completed the trip in under 24 hours. He was stuck in NSW for 14 days.
"The biggest problem is we applied for the exemption but we couldn't get through to anyone," he said.
Mr Holmes said after hearing nothing from the department he received an email "saying because it had been so many days time had run out and I had to reapply."
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Mr Holmes' experience echoes those detailed in Ms Glass' report which criticised that applications were closed as 'expired' when they were not processed before the intended travel date, forcing people to apply again.
Ms Glass said people felt they'd been 'caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that bordered on inhumane'.
"It appeared to us that the department put significant resources into keeping people out rather than helping them find safe ways to get home," Ms Glass said.
"The whole scheme failed to comprehend the very real need for many people to come and go across the border for a whole range of reasons, even in the face of official warnings.
"Our state borders have been porous for over 100 years. Even in a global health emergency, some people need to cross them, and too many found themselves bereft.
"Rather than fairly considering individual circumstances and the risks associated with them, the exemptions scheme was a blunt instrument that resulted in unjust outcomes, potentially for thousands of people."
Ms Glass said many of the 315 complaints she received were 'heartbreaking'.
She said people who needed to care for ill or elderly residents were left stranded while others were left homeless or paying double rent with no job.
She said pensioners were forced to pay for accommodation they couldn't afford and people 'desperate to attend vital medical appointments' were told they could not return to Victoria.
During the border closure 2649 applications for an exemption to attend a funeral or end of life were lodged, but only 877 were granted.
While only 895 of the 10,812 exemption applications to return home for health, wellbeing, care and compassionate reasons were granted.
Ms Glass found the decision to issue border directions was not unreasonable but the addition of the 'extreme risk zone' caught people off guard and left them stranded.
Ms Glass acknowledged hardworking public health officials had a tough job but said "we cannot let this happen again."
Member for Benambra Bill Tilley said the the Ombudman's findings didn't come as a surprise to "those of us who lived through those lockdowns and the farce that were offered as exemptions."
"The exemptions were often just a stalling tactic that offered false hope," he said.
"This report shows that more that 9 out of 10 didn't get an exemption but many of those never even got the courtesy of a returned phone call or email to acknowledge they'd even applied.
"We will never forget the bloody mindedness and political bastardry applied to regional and rural Victorians.
"They didn't get it then and they still don't get it."
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