DFAT now estimates there are about 23,000 Australians wanting to come home, up from 18,800 two weeks ago.
The cap of about 4000 returned travellers a week has created a major backlog, with airlines prioritising business and first-class passengers to remain profitable and planes carrying as few as four economy passengers.
DFAT first assistant secretary Fiona Webster said about 15 per cent of these Australians who want to come home – which equates to 3450 – would be classed as vulnerable.
She said about 7000 of the Australians wanting to return are stuck in India.
“We’ve got at the moment 23,000 Australians who have indicated a wish to return home,” she said.
“Our consular assistance is wide-ranging, for some who register they will also become actually consular cases for us, in which case we provide very engaged assistance to them.
“It may be that they have medical conditions and they need help with access to medication or medical care, which our embassies can help them to do through local hospitals and doctors.”
Dr Webster said 402 COVID-related loans have been issued to Australians overseas since the global pandemic began, but cautioned these were only given as a last resort.
She said consular officials “in the first instance” advised Australians overseas to contact family, friends, travel insurers and their financial institutions.
“It may be that they have no financial means to support themselves, in which case we stand ready as a last resort to offer traveller emergency loans,” she said.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last week revealed the federal government was working on a plan to bring back Australians who may urgently need to get home by quarantining them in remote parts of Australia.
The rescue plan is being worked on to respond to a range of scenarios — including if a country started deporting Australians because they had cancelled their visas and wouldn’t renew them.
The cap on returning travellers is due to be reviewed by the end of this week.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.