Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has suggested Australia should reduce arrival caps for returning Australians by up to 80 per cent to reduce the chances of lockdowns.
“I want to sit down and have a proper debate and discussion. Yes, there’d be an inconvenience in less people being able to return … a lot of that would be heartbreaking … but it’s about time [we had that discussion],” said Premier Andrews on Tuesday morning.
The comments are in stark contrast to those made yesterday by his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian, who said her state would continue to take international arrivals despite Sydney’s lockdown.
“I want a debate and discussion about how many people we’re letting in and how many people we’re letting out to then return home,” Premier Andrews told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“A lockdown of a whole city, or halving or reducing by 75 per cent or 80 per cent the number of people in hotel quarantine, in my judgement, there’s no comparison.
“My judgement is a vast majority of Victorians are far more alarmed at the prospect of lockdowns [than reducing the number of returning Australians].”
Yesterday, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hinted the arrival numbers will not come down and insisted hotel quarantine has “by and large been effective”.
“We’ll take the medical advice on numbers that are coming in and how our systems can cope. As you know the Prime Minister took and the government took some decisions around numbers of people coming from India with the new variant and that was because of the capacity through the quarantine process,” he said.
“Again we will take those decisions based on the medical advice, but the quarantine system has by and large been effective. Australia’s success has been very effective in suppressing the virus.”
The news comes after the head of Australia’s vaccine rollout, Lieutenant General John Frewen, said on Monday COVID restrictions could be in place for years – in a huge blow to international travel.
“All of these measures we can expect to see activated and then deactivated as we become more comfortable with the outbreak,” LTGEN Frewen said. “We will have to get more comfortable with the idea that there will be ongoing outbreaks in the COVID space.”
The words were backed up by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said he would not “countenance” opening up Australia with the levels of deaths seen now in a vaccinated Britain.
“Even as the UK is finding with an 80 per cent vaccinated population, they’re not there either because they’ve got over 100 people dying every week,” PM Morrison said.
“And one of the reasons why Australia is in such a unique position compared to the rest of the world is COVID is riddled through all of those countries.
“Their opportunity to ensure that the absolutely calamitous impact of this virus and the new strains doesn’t impact on them is much more limited than here in Australia, because of the success we’ve had to date. It would be unwise to surrender that advantage at this point and preferably at no point.”
PM Morrison’s comments came on the day Britain’s new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, confirmed most COVID restrictions in the country would end on 19 July. Already 85 per cent of all adults are fully vaccinated.
That message was matched by Singapore, who on Monday said it would no longer release daily COVID case numbers and would ditch quarantine for returned travellers. The US is aiming to open up fully on 4 July.
The mixed messages on opening up Australia come despite the federal government commitment to funding another 100 Qantas repatriation flights over the next year.
The flag carrier has been using its 787 Dreamliners for the missions, which have a capacity to carry around 170 passengers each, meaning 17,000 more stranded Australians can return.
The expansion, set to roll out over “the coming months”, coincides with the Howard Springs quarantine facility planning to double its capacity, from 850 to 2,000 per fortnight.
Howard Springs first took in large numbers of international travellers in October 2020 when it initially expanded its capacity.
The budget in May also revealed 18,800 Australians have flown home on 127 government-sponsored flights, out of a total of 45,400 returnees, most of whom would have flown with commercial airlines such as Qatar.
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 3,000 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.