Victoria is unlikely to lift its hard border with New South Wales until at least the end of the month, as the number of stranded people seeking permission to enter the state passes 3,000.
The state’s health minister, Martin Foley, said on Wednesday that on current projections the hard border was “unlikely” to be removed “before the end of January”.
“This is a fast-moving, silent virus that pays no respect to interstate borders,” he said. “The goal of the hard border with NSW is to minimise the risk of the virus reseeding back into Victoria.
“There is already evidence that has happened with the Black Rock cluster before the hard border was put in place.”
Foley’s comments came as pressure mounted on the Andrews government to ease the exemptions process and provide what the prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Tuesday called a “better pathway home” for Victorians stranded north of the border.
As of Wednesday morning, Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services had processed 295 exemption applications, but 3,452 claims were still outstanding.
Jeroen Weimar, Victoria’s Covid-19 response commander, told reporters on Wednesday that a new online portal had been created to help deal with the backlog and about 40 staff were now working through applications.
But he said the department was focusing on urgent applications, such as for people with emergency health needs.
While most of the 3,000 people waiting for exemptions are Victorians, others have also been impacted by the hard border closure.
Among them are Hao Wu and his wife Le Shen, both 36, and their daughter Ella, eight. Wu told Guardian Australia his family moved out of their Parramatta home last month having signed a lease for a rental property in Doncaster East, in Melbourne’s east, because he had secured a new job. He is now on the jobkeeper payment and his wife is out of work.
They contacted DHHS on 21 December and, after waiting nearly a week for a response, finalised an application for permission to enter Victoria to relocate on 27 December. That application has still not been processed.
“We are homeless and have been living in our friend’s house for nearly two weeks now,” Wu told Guardian Australia.
Wu said he was particularly worried about his daughter’s schooling given she is no longer enrolled in Sydney and was set to start this year at a local school in Melbourne.
The family is now paying rent on their new home in Victoria, despite being unable to enter the state, and all their belongings will be delivered to their new place on Thursday.
“I don’t know when we’re going to be able to go,” Wu said. “Living in your friend’s house, it’s not like we can live there for too long, you know.”
Another Victorian couple contacted Guardian Australia to say they were stranded in Alpine, in the NSW southern highlands, and were worried about being left homeless when they finally returned to their home state because their lease would expire in three weeks.
Other cases have also put the spotlight on hard border closures. On Tuesday, an Adelaide woman told the ABC she had miscarried on the side of the road during a nightmare journey back from NSW. She and her partner were turned back at the Victorian border and instead took a detour along about 100km of unsealed road.
While exemptions are in place for compassionate reasons, the large backlog of claims has meant some Victorians have missed the funerals of their loved ones.
The Victorian government started warning residents that border rules could change rapidly when it imposed initial restrictions on 21 December, though the decision to close the border to all of NSW, including to so-called “green zone” areas, caught many by surprise.
The state Liberal opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, has called on the government to prioritise families with school-age children for exemptions so they can return to classrooms when term one begins on 29 January.
Health authorities have also come under fire for suggesting Victorians might be expected to drive 10 hours with only two brief stops in NSW when travelling back through NSW.
People in Queensland and the ACT are able to apply for a permit, rather than go through the more lengthy exemption process to return to Victoria by car. However, they must limit stops in NSW and avoid staying overnight.
“The transit pass is designed to give you a safe, insulated bubble to travel back to Victoria,” Weimar said.
“We will work with you on the details of your journey. We will want people to make the safest, shortest … journey that has the minimum exposure time.
“We want people to be safe, but we do want people to minimise that contact. If they cannot achieve that, if that’s not possible, then they’ll have to find another way to get back to Victoria.”