Hotel quarantine debt is estimated at $140 million — but some are contesting their bills

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When Vasel Ljuldjuraj flew home to South Australia after visiting relatives in Albania in January last year, he did not expect to be walking into what he described as “the worst two weeks” of his life.

“When we landed they took us on a bus and locked me in my room,” Mr Ljuldjuraj said.

“I was suffering and they said I would have to pay extra just to get a room with a balcony so I could breathe fresh air.

“I’ve never done anything wrong. I didn’t bring any disease into this country — I brought myself.”

Like most travellers returning to Australia, the 75-year-old was put into mandatory hotel quarantine, which was then in effect as a measure to limit the number of COVID-19 cases and stop the spread of coronavirus.

But Mr Ljuldjuraj said the confines of his hotel room had been so oppressive that he had suffered mental trauma, to the extent that he had even contemplated taking his own life.

The great-grandfather said the same day he finished his 14 days of quarantine at Peppers Waymouth Hotel in Adelaide, he was handed the $3,000 bill for his stay by the SA government.

“In 57 years I’ve never owed one dollar to any government department or individual,” Mr Ljuldjuraj said, adding that he was prepared to go to jail.

“I will pay somehow with jail but I will not pay cash,” he said.

“With my hands I will never pay that money.”

Mr Ljuldjuraj has decided to fight the matter in court and is likely not alone in taking this measure.

He is one of more than 20,000 people across the country who have not paid their hotel quarantine bills.

The combined total debt has been estimated at $140 million — a figure that does not include bills being resolved through payment plans.

Earlier this week, inactive AFLW player and nurse Deni Varnhagen’s attempt to challenge separate COVID directions was dismissed, and debt lawyer Justin Stewart-Rattray said there appeared to be only “limited legal avenues” for people to challenge their hotel quarantine debt in court.

A $3,000 bill from the State Government
Mr Ljuldjuraj said he would rather go to jail than pay the $3,000 for hotel quarantine.(ABC News: Ethan Rix )

But Mr Stewart-Rattray added that the possibility of a successful challenge was yet to be fully tested, and also said governments had decisions to make about how aggressively to pursue those who had not paid.

“It is really a matter of the state looking at the bigger picture when considering undertaking litigation,” Mr Stewart-Rattray said.

“Even if it may be that the cost of litigating an individual matter is more than the sum of money being pursued, the outcome of the matter could guarantee the hotel quarantine debts.

“The key question is, what are the chances that undertaking litigation would result in more people paying their debts?”

Uphill battle for legal challenges

Mr Stewart-Rattray, who is also the president of the Law Society SA, said history was not on the side of those looking to fight COVID-related directions.

“Perhaps someone may challenge the constitutional validity of a hotel quarantine fee, as has been attempted with regards to vaccine mandates,” he said.

justin stewart rattray
Mr Stewart-Rattray expressed doubt about the likelihood of successfully challenging hotel quarantine bills in court.(Supplied: Law Society of SA/Tom Roschi Photography)

“But the outcomes of previous challenges to COVID-related directions would suggest this ought to be preceded by sound legal advice.”

He said while some returned travellers had had “hotel quarantine fees waived”, any challenges on financial hardship grounds would likely be unsuccessful.

“Assuming the state acted reasonably when reviewing financial hardship applications, challenging hotel quarantine fees in court on this basis would likely be a difficult task and it would be wise for anyone thinking about pursuing a court challenge to consider getting legal advice,” he said.

“If a person has a complaint about the conditions of the hotel, it is likely they would have to pursue the complaint against the hotel, rather than the state.”

New South Wales has by far the largest amount of debt, with $50.6 million worth of outstanding hotel quarantine fee invoices by November, of which almost $3 million is being resolved through active payment plans.

In Queensland, 14,767 invoices totalling $42 million are overdue for payment.

Victoria is likely still chasing up at least $20 million in overdue bills, with 91 per cent of suspected 70,000 quarantine invoices having been paid in full, waived, or moved to a payment plan.

As of June, Western Australia had 6,695 outstanding invoices valued at $16 million and the comparable figure in South Australia is still at least $10 million.

A police car is parked in front of the Peppers Waymouth Hotel in Adelaide's CBD.
Mr Ljuldjuraj undertook two weeks of quarantine at Peppers Waymouth Hotel in Adelaide’s CBD.(ABC News: Michael Clements)

The Northern Territory has $4.36 million worth of outstanding invoices while the ACT government is awaiting payments for 10 invoices worth $7,500.

Tasmania was the only government who didn’t charge returning international travellers for hotel quarantine, stating it “sought to minimise the financial impact of mandatory hotel quarantine on individuals”.

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