Health Minister Greg Hunt has argued the country has a “profound human duty” to help Australians abroad return home after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews questioned the practice.
Minister Hunt said there are “mums and dads coming home to see their sons and daughters, children who have been studying overseas, families that have been separated, people coming home to say goodbye to loved ones, some themselves who may have terminal conditions”.
It comes after Premier Andrews suggested Australia lower its arrival numbers and needed to have a “cold, hard discussion” of how best to keep new variants of COVID out of the country.
“With this UK strain – and we haven’t even got on to South Africa yet, because it’s just as bad – should we be halving the total number of people coming home?” said Premier Andrews last week. “Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds?
“That’s a conversation we should have, particularly given that we’re so close to being able to vaccinate those who, if they get this, will become gravely ill.
“It’s not for me to make announcements about how many Australians get to come back to Australia. That’s for the federal government. What I’m saying is the game has changed.
“This thing is not the 2020 virus. It is very different. It is much faster. It spreads much more easily.”
Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the federal government is on the verge of striking a deal to enlarge the quarantine facility in Darwin, currently accepting repatriations from selected government supplemented Qantas flights.
The centre is currently taking 850 people but has rooms for more than 3,000. Its capacity is currently limited by staff and health facilities needed to quarantine returning Australians.
“We have so far struck two deals with the Northern Territory and a third one is very close but it is simply dependent on their capability assessment of what is the safe carrying capacity for the third stage of the Howard Springs facility,” said Hunt.
On Monday, Australia’s arrival caps returned to their previously higher December 2020 levels, which were cut at the start of 2021 following a second COVID cluster in Sydney.
From 15 February, NSW will return to its weekly cap of 3,010 and Queensland to 1,000. In full, the new limits are:
- NSW 3,010 (now 1,505);
- Queensland 1,000 (now 500);
- Victoria 1,310 (now 1,120);
- SA 530 (now 490);
- WA 512 (now 512);
- Total 6,362 (now 4,127).
In January, the temporary cuts formed 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.
Arrival caps were introduced in July and sat at 4,000, before increasing to 6,500 at the end of 2020 and then decreasing to just over 4,000 in January 2021.