NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has committed to her state continuing to take international arrivals despite Greater Sydney entering lockdown over a growing COVID cluster.
“Imagine being an Aussie stranded somewhere overseas and not being able to come home, that is a basic human right that all of us have, as Aussies, to be able to come back home,” Premier Berejiklian said on Monday morning.
The words are significant given Victoria halted taking stranded Australians during its second lockdown and flights from India were temporarily suspended in May when the Delta COVID variant became dominant there.
Premier Berejiklian made the comments while announcing new local cases in NSW had dropped by a third to 18 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday night.
“It’s the compassionate thing to do and I appreciate the risk that comes with that, which is why I’ve argued for a long time that, you know, given New South Wales is doing the heavy lifting there, that consideration should be given to those vaccines coming our way,” she said.
“Obviously, the larger numbers you have, the greater the risk. But our system is robust. We have a rhythm, and we’re supporting the nation.”
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.”
In May, the federal government committed 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.
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 3,000 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.