Prime Minister Scott Morrison has written a personal letter to Australians stranded abroad that appears to blame them for their struggles to return home.
He said the unique nature of the crisis is “why I asked Australians to return home on March 17, 2020” and defended the international arrival caps as “frustrating” but “essential” to protect the country.
The restrictions limiting the number of Australians who could fly home at any one time were first introduced in July to regulate the flow of people arriving into government quarantine facilities and were extended again last Friday.
The correspondence was sent to Aussies who had contacted him to complain about the country’s cap, which many have blamed for driving up prices and reducing availability.
The PM wrote, “Thank you for contacting me about the difficulties you are facing in returning home to Australia.
“These are difficult days for our country. The COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a hundred years event – an international health crisis.
“It is why I asked Australians to return home on March 17, 2020. At the time, DFAT expressly warned of the difficulties, noting that travel was becoming ‘more complex and difficult’.
“As an island continent, control of our borders has been a means by which we have kept Australian safe.
“We are also dealing with an evolving situation. In view of recent outbreaks, we have put measures in place to help manage the pressure on quarantine facilities, including caps on international arrivals.
“I recognise these measures are frustrating, but they are essential to continue the success that Australia has achieved so far in minimising domestic spread of the pandemic.
“Flexibility remains with these caps to as much as possible minimise disruptions to returning Australian citizens and permanent residents.”
He then advised those abroad to find a safe place to stay, follow local rules and keep in contact with Australian embassies.
Recipients of the letter, reports Daily Mail Australia, have taken to social media to complain about the “heartless” and “ignorant” response. Many abroad argue they were only recently made redundant, or have struggled to get flights for months.
Separately, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Wednesday that four Coalition MPs have raised the issue of the cap at a meeting in Canberra. The newspaper says those complaining included Victorian Liberal MP Tim Wilson and NSW MPs Trent Zimmerman and Dave Sharma.
“One in three Australians was born overseas,” Sharma said later. “There are usually 1 million Australians working, studying or travelling overseas at any given time.
“The health risks of this pandemic are serious and we need to take prudent steps at our borders to defend against this but we also need to allow Australians to come and go.”
The restrictions were introduced at the start of July to ease pressure on the country’s government isolation facilities after some blamed apparent breaches in Victoria for causing a second wave of cases.
The move has attracted criticism because it has reportedly led to airlines prioritising business class passengers – thereby hugely inflating the cost and availability of tickets.
Currently, all Australian citizens, permanent and dual nationals, are banned from leaving the country, and only citizens and permanent residents can arrive.
When the cap was first introduced, the Prime Minister said there would always be “capacity” for people to return home.
“There will be continuing access to Australia but the number of available positions on flights will be less and I don’t think that is surprising or unreasonable in the circumstances,” PM Morrison said.
Then last Friday, announcing the extension of the cap system, PM Morrison claimed 4,000 Australians are still returning every week and hinted Melbourne could soon restart its own program.
“We acknowledge that some of them are in some difficult circumstances. Our consular teams are doing a great job to help them in those circumstances, and we’ll be doing more to help them in those circumstances and to assist them to get home,” the PM said.
It’s currently thought that as many as 18,000 Australian residents are no longer in the country but hoping to return.
The current limits are:
- Melbourne – no international passenger arrivals;
- Sydney – 350 passenger arrivals per day;
- Perth – 525 passenger arrivals per week;
- Brisbane –500 passenger arrivals per week; and
- Adelaide – 500 passenger arrivals per week.