The Howard Springs quarantine facility is set to more than double its capacity, from 850 to 2,000 per fortnight.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the increase, which will take effect from April or May, was negotiated in conjunction with the NT government.
The facility first took in large numbers of international travellers in October 2020 when it initially expanded its capacity and mostly serves those travelling on government supplemented Qantas repatriation flights.
“That is an important addition to the capacity of those quarantine facilities, to receive those return chartered flights that Australia has been putting in place for many, many months,” said PM Morrison on Friday.
“I want to thank New South Wales, who are taking more than 3,000 a week, both Western Australia and Queensland are also now back over 1,000 per week, and South Australia at 530.
“I’m looking forward soon to a decision from the Victorian government, once they’re in a position to advise us of when they’ll be also in a position to take flights again.”
He also revealed more than 4,600 international arrivals have quarantined at the Howard Springs facility since repatriation flights began on 23 October 2020.
The news comes after Australia’s arrival caps in February returned to their previously higher December 2020 levels, which were cut at the start of 2021 following a second COVID cluster in Sydney. It meant NSW returned to its weekly cap of 3,010 and Queensland to 1,000.
The January temporary cuts formed part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, and also included 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.
The federal government’s move comes after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews in February suggested the country needed to have a “cold, hard discussion” of how best to keep new variants of COVID out of the country, which could include allowing less Australians abroad to return home.
“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. “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.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt appeared to criticise the statement, arguing Australia has a “profound human duty” to help Australians abroad return home.