Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that the country’s international arrival caps will be halved in NSW, Western Australia and Queensland.
The changes form part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, and also include a provision for passengers to wear masks on all domestic and international flights; for hotel staff to be tested daily and for ex-pats to require a negative result before boarding a repatriation flight.
The decision followed a meeting of the national cabinet, which discussed what measures could be taken to prevent the UK’s more transmissible variant of COVID seeping into the community.
Early on Friday, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk put Greater Brisbane into a three-day lockdown following a hotel quarantine cleaner who tested positive for the new strain.
PM Morrison said the purpose of the new rules was to “reduce and debulk the risk in terms of exposure to the new strain”.
Most significantly, the previously growing arrival caps – which increased from 4,000 in July 2019 to nearly 6,500 by the end of the year – will be reduced until at least 15 February.
There will now be a weekly cap of 1,505 arrivals in NSW, 512 in Western Australia and 500 in Queensland. South Australia will keep its 60 weekly limit and Victoria will maintain its current 50 per cent reduced capacity.
“In the smaller jurisdictions – the ACT, the Northern Territory, Tasmania – they are very bespoke arrangements in relation to those airports, and they’ll be settled between the Commonwealth and those jurisdictions specifically,” PM Morrison said.
He added that all individuals – including travellers and staff – must adhere to more stringent infection prevention controls.
“That includes: passengers to wear masks throughout international flights, crew to wear masks and other personal protective equipment where appropriate, airlines to have appropriate infection prevention and control measures onboard aircraft, and all individuals within Australian and international airport environments to wear a mask,” he said.
People travelling to Australia must also return a negative COVID-19 test result prior to departure, though there will be exemptions in extenuating circumstances.
Finally, in a major change to protocol, all states and territories will test hotel quarantine staff daily and all international aircrew must undergo one when they arrive and after seven days of being in the country.
The rules are likely to anger international airlines, who in December said they had stopped selling tickets to stranded Australians because the caps were so strict.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia has made numerous interventions over the last few months, including estimating that the actual figure of stranded Australians trying to return home could be as high as 100,000.
The further upgrade follows NSW introducing two new major quarantine rule changes for international air crew in December following an alleged breach of existing guidance.
Crews from Qantas repatriation flights are now required to take a COVID test before being allowed to isolate at home, while those from non-Australian airlines have to stay in two police-supervised hotels.
The old rules allowed airline employees to self-isolate at a designated location approved by the airline, so long as details were also shared with authorities. Crews could catch a taxi to their accommodation, providing they sat in the back and wore a mask.
NSW has so far designated two facilities and Victoria followed by designating three. Typically, arrivals spend no more than 72 hours in a city before catching a flight out of Australia.