Victoria finally restarted its hotel quarantine program on Monday after Melbourne Airport began accepting flights carrying returning citizens.
The news is likely to eventually lead to a significant increase in Australia’s controversial arrival caps, which are currently fluctuating at just over 6,000.
Melbourne stopped welcoming flights at the start of July as the city experienced a second wave of coronavirus cases, apparently caused by a leak from the state’s hotel quarantine process.
The first arrival was a SriLankan Airlines A330-343, 4R-ALO msn 1650, which departed Colombo in Sri Lanka on Sunday, 6 December at 4:53 PM as flight UL604 and landed in the city at 7:48am this morning.
Perhaps ironically, the very first passengers to be housed under the strengthened system actually attempted to dodge the international isolation process in Sydney and instead boarded a domestic flight to Victoria at the weekend.
The news of the first flight landing comes shortly after the Victoria government revealed it would create a new dedicated agency to run its hotel quarantine system.
Corrections Commissioner Emma Cassar will oversee ‘COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria’, which will directly employ all staff with no private security used.
The new process will see all staff tested for COVID daily, while those living in their households will also be regularly tested, too.
Victoria Police will take a lead role in the supervision and enforcement of the new rules alongside ADF personnel.
Residents in the hotels will now no longer be allowed to leave their rooms for fresh air or exercise unless there is medical, mental health or compassionate reasons.
“There are many lessons that have to be learned in relation to hotel quarantine and we have learnt those lessons, both from Victoria’s experience but also from experiences in Adelaide, experiences in Sydney,” said Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews previously.
“Breaches out of hotel quarantine are not unique to Victoria, what we have to be though, is focused on the best system, the strongest system to keep Victorians safe.”
Critics have argued the cap system has stopped Australians abroad being able to return home by reducing availability and increasing prices.
Premier Andrews has previously insisted quarantine wouldn’t return until the ongoing enquiry into the state’s handling of arrivals reached a conclusion.
Last month, Australian Aviation reported how the industry body representing international carriers said most airlines stopped selling tickets to stranded Australians “months ago” due to the country’s international arrival caps.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA) has predicted that more than 10,000 of those who have registered to return will be left overseas by the end of 2020 – with the actual number attempting to get back far higher.
“There have been welcome increases in the total permitted arrivals each week, including the planned initial re-opening of Melbourne Airport, bringing permitted arrivals into the major capital city airports to about 6,000 per week from early December,” said the organisation in a statement. “It is not enough, however, to meet the demand that exists.”
BARA, which has made numerous interventions over the last few months, said official waiting lists don’t tell the whole picture of how many Australians are stranded abroad. It has previously estimated the actual figure to be as high as 100,000.
“The number of Australians overseas seeking to return home before the end of 2020 but now without an option to do so far exceeds the immediate waiting list of at least 10,000,” BARA said.
“This is because to meet the tight international passenger arrival caps, which were implemented with very short notice, many international airlines were forced to stop selling tickets some months ago.
“This means that the estimated immediate waiting list of 10,000 Australians overseas after airlines have booked flights to the permitted caps, does not include those who have been unable to book a ticket or join a waiting list”
The industry group again called for Australia to allocate domestic quarantine hotel rooms to overseas arrivals when more domestic borders reopen.
“Based on the data available to BARA, the re-opening of domestic borders could permit an additional 2,000 international arrivals each week through the reallocation of domestic quarantine capacity to international arrivals,” said executive director Barry Abrams.