Pressure is building on the Morrison Government to rescue tens-of-thousands of Australians stranded abroad and unable to come home due to strict quarantine caps and limited (as well as costly) flight availability.
The situation worsened after Emirates suspended all flights from Dubai to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane owing to National Cabinet’s decision to reduce hotel quarantine capacity.
Fairfax summarised the farce over the weekend:
Ben Saul, professor of international law at Sydney University, says it’s hard to defend decisions to let in people like high-profile international sports stars at a time when so many citizens are stranded abroad. “If it’s so difficult to bring people home why are we letting in the Indian cricket team from the second most infected country in the world?” he asks. Victoria, too, has brought in 1200 tennis players and supporters for the Australian Open.
Saul accuses the government of lacking “political will to give appropriate weight to the citizen and human rights of Australians to return home to their own country”.
The bottlenecks for would-be returnees stem from the requirement for returning travellers to enter hotel quarantine, which is run by the states and territories. The availability of quarantine places in turn dictates the caps which states seek on the numbers of overseas arrivals. Those caps are agreed at national cabinet, then relayed to the airlines by the federal department of Infrastructure and Transport under Commonwealth air navigation regulations.
Yet the caps themselves are subject to arbitrary variation, as was demonstrated by last week’s decision to abruptly halve them for a month after panic set in among state premiers about the increased infectivity of the UK strain of the coronavirus…
The knock-on effect means another round of cancelled flights for those waiting to get back from enforced exile, and havoc for airline schedules…
“You hear the government saying they are doing all they can to get Aussies home – no they are not, they are not exploring every single avenue”, the source said. “There does not seem to be a level of want from government at any level to genuinely sit down with the industry and say, ‘Listen, we see this is an issue, we are thinking about trying these solutions, how does that work for you guys operationally?'”…
Labor’s Penny Wong says the country is “in this mess because … Scott Morrison, for whatever reason, did not want to take responsibility for national quarantine”.
In typical tokenistic fashion, the Morrison Government announced that it would charter a measly 20 flights between 31 January and 31 March in an effort to bring more people currently stranded overseas back to Australia:
Acting Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham announced the plan on Saturday to get more Australians home on flights running between January 31 and March 31.
He told Sydney’s 2GB radio on Sunday the actual number of passengers will depend on the quarantine arrangements at the time…
“Importantly, these 20 facilitated flights the government will undertake will come in over and above the cap.”
It beggars belief how poorly stranded Australians have been treated by our governments, especially the federal government.
The federal government should have opened up federal quarantine facilities and chartered flights to pick them up six months ago (if not earlier).
Instead, the federal government passed the buck to the states and washed its hands of the process, effectively abandoning any responsibility.
The federal government must now charter as many flights as necessary to bring Australians home to federal quarantine facilities. In order to minimise risks to the community, these federal quarantine facilities should:
- House international arrivals away from population centres (e.g. in regional army bases);
- Utilise only highly trained and well paid staff;
- Ensure these staff work in dedicated teams (to avoid cross-contamination) and remain on site throughout their deployment (similar to mining FIFO workers); and
- Conduct regular testing of quarantine staff and guests.
The federal government is best placed to coordinate and fund both the repatriation of Australians and Australia’s quarantine effort. It also has constitutional responsibility for quarantine arrangements.
The Morrison Government must take control of the situation, not continue to pass the buck to the states.
It’s time for some national leadership, responsibility and accountability.