The more than 1000 foreign citizens who were allowed into the country still had to undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a designated facility such as a hotel.
They did not include foreign nationals travelling at the invitation of the Australian government for the purpose of assisting in the COVID-19 response, people aiding in the delivery of critical medical supplies, people with critical skills and diplomats accredited to Australia and their immediate family.
There is no specific criteria for a “compassionate” reason, but many of the people are believed to be temporary visa holders with family in Australia. It is unclear what countries they came from.
While foreign nationals have been banned from visiting the country, Australian citizens and permanent residents have also been restricted from leaving the country unless they have an exemption.
Border Force granted 5797 Australian citizens and permanent residents permission to leave Australia on compassionate or humanitarian grounds over the same time.
Sydney man Bon Lee was given an exemption to leave Australia to visit his 93-year-old grandfather in Hong Kong after he suffered a serious fall and required surgery.
Mr Lee is currently self-quarantining in a Hong Kong hotel room for 14 days with his wife. They will get out of isolation on Sunday and then can visit his grandfather.
The couple have to wear a wrist band with a GPS tracking device at all times, which would trigger an alert if they tried to leave the hotel.
Mr Lee was one of hundreds of Australians who were trapped in Hubei province in January when the COVID-19 outbreak first hit the Chinese province. He boarded a Qantas evacuation flight out of the area and was taken to the Inpex Howard Springs mining camp site in the Northern Territory where he had to quarantine for 14 days, but he had to leave his daughter in Hubei with in-laws.
After he gets out of isolation in Hong Kong and spends time with with his grandfather, he intends to travel back to the Chinese mainland – where he will have to self-quarantine for another 14-days – and then bring his daughter to Hong Kong.
“It’s like I’m trying to break the record for the most amount of self-quarantines,” Mr Lee said.
“Our daughter is in mainland China so we have to get her, we will just wait and see how the policy changes in Australia to see whether we can get back in.”
As the COVID-19 crisis spread around the world, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia would close its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents from 9pm on March 20.
By that time, the government had previously banned foreign nationals from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.
A spokesman for Border Force said the length of stay for a person arriving on compassionate grounds was determined by the visa they hold.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.