A separate multimillion-dollar fund will also be established to support overseas-based citizens who are struggling financially and cannot get home.
The plans are being developed in response to anger from stranded citizens, growing uneasiness among Australia’s network of ambassadors and a flurry of calls to backbench MPs by angry constituents.
The plan to quarantine returned Australians outside of capital cities is being drawn up to alleviate state government concerns they wouldn’t have the capacity to deal with any more returned travellers if the cap of about 4000 travellers a week needed to be lifted.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs and Defence have all been working on the rescue scenarios. The government has not yet settled on where to quarantine returned citizens, but remote locations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are being considered, according to senior government sources.
Since then, airlines have been prioritising business and first-class passengers to remain profitable, with planes carrying as few as four economy passengers.
Talking points issued to diplomatic missions around the world are encouraging consular officials to talk through a range of options for citizens affected by the cap — including asking the person whether they could rely on sporting clubs, churches or other community groups for help. If not, the talking points direct the telephone operator to suggest an online crowdfunding campaign to raise money.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have spoken to a number of Australian diplomatic representatives in the Americas, Europe and Asia who said the caps were causing major damage to the mental health of stranded citizens.
“Every night, I worry that the stress of all this might end in real tragedy,” said one figure, who asked not to be named. “There are so many genuine cases of real hardship and we are trying our best but the policy means we can’t do everything we should be doing.”
They all expressed anger that their concerns about the policy had not been met with a proper response from Canberra. Some also said they were concerned for consular staff in overseas missions who had been inundated with requests for help from desperate Australians and were struggling with the workload and emotional nature of some individual circumstances.
Some officials stressed that only a fraction of their caseloads were people who had the chance to return to Australia when the government advised them to in mid-March but ignored the recommendation.
There is rising concern that Australia’s embassies are expending valuable political capital in repeatedly asking foreign governments to extend the visas of stranded Australians. The rescue plan is being worked on with this in mind.
“At some point, a country is going to put their foot down and say no. Then what happens?” said another representative.
The issue is complicated with DFAT, Home Affairs, the Department of Infrastructure, and Department of Health all sharing roles in administering the inbound and outbound coronavirus border restrictions. Changes to the system also have to go through the increasingly divided national cabinet.
The cap on international arrivals will be reviewed next week.
A “Supporting Australians Overseas Fund”, which was due to be discussed at a meeting of the expenditure review committee on Thursday, would involve spending millions of dollars on supporting Australians stuck overseas.
Opponents of the existing policy argue the fund would be “window dressing” and not solve the main problem of actually getting people back to Australia.
They also cautioned against small increases to the cap, arguing there were only two realistic options to get the tens of thousands of Australians home: abandoning the international cap regime entirely so that the aviation industry can operate unimpeded, or create a series of specially facilitated flights, potentially via Qantas or another carrier, that are partially subsidised.
One member of cabinet noted the Australian Defence Force had six KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker aircraft stationed at the RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Each plane can carry 270 passengers.
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Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.