The federal government has commissioned a further 20 repatriation flights to assist Australians in key locations and flying them to locations such as the Howard Springs quarantine facility, Canberra and Tasmania. These seats are on top of the cap on commercial travellers into major cities.
But the decision to halve the capacity of hotel quarantine in order to better cope with new, highly infections strains of COVID-19 overseas, and the subsequent cancellation of Emirates flights, has led several MPs to question the caps and call for them to be lifted sooner than February 15.
North Sydney Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age the lower cap was “obviously having a dire impact on many Australians still overseas who, at the beginning of the New Year, were planning to return to Australia”
“The concern of new strains having an impact on Australia is entirely understandable, but if the February start date can be brought forward that would be a positive outcome,” he said. “That requires states to speed up their processes of reviewing hotel quarantine systems to meet the requirements to handle the new UK and other (coronavirus) strains.”
Higgins Liberal MP Katie Allen said: ‘There’s no doubt we want to see an increase in quarantine caps. I would support that.”
However, she added: “The tricky thing is we have to balance that with keeping Australians safe. I think some states have taken a heavier burden than others. I’m not privy to the reasons behind that, but it would be good to see all them put their shoulders to the wheel.”
Liberal MP for Wentworth Dave Sharma, a previous critic of the caps, said the reduction was necessary for health reasons but was “undoubtedly causing additional hardship” for stranded Australians.
“I feel for these people and their loved ones back in Australia, and it’s important we do all we can to ensure they can return home,” he said.
Senator Birmingham conceded the reduced caps had “made it more challenging” for Australians to come home but said it was necessary to protect against the virulent new strains of COVID-19.
Emirates is expected to continue flights to Perth but cancelled all other flights to Australia. It had been operating daily flights to Sydney and Melbourne, and five flights a week to Brisbane.
The airline played a major role in returning Australians after Qantas suspended commercial flights. Other foreign airlines still flying into Australia include Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways.
A spokesman for Japan Airlines said the carrier would abide by the reduced cap for January but did not rule out future flight reductions. “At this point, we will review our plans for February and make an announcement for future scheduling shortly,” he said.
A Singapore Airlines spokesman said the temporary reduction to Australia’s international arrival caps “adds to the already challenging environment” but the airline would continue to work with authorities to maximise arrivals under the cap.
Stephen Blanks, a spokesman for the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, said it was extraordinary that Australian citizens were unable to return to Australia because of quotas on the number of arrivals.
“The quotas have been set at a level where Australian citizens are left in distressing situations,” he said. “There should be a scheme for ameliorating the hardship that Australian citizens face overseas as a result of this government policy.”
On Friday night the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed about 38,000 people were still registered with DFAT as being overseas and wanting to return. About 5000 were considered to be “vulnerable”.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong blamed Prime Minister Scott Morrison for the Emirates cancellations, saying he had failed to establish a national quarantine system with sufficient capacity.
“He has refused to take responsibility,” she said. “He has left it to the states and now we have 40,000 Australians stranded overseas.”
Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday shrugged off the Emirates decision, saying it had been made for “operational reasons” and he didn’t know if it had “anything to do with” the reduced caps.
Independent Warringah MP Zali Steggall said her office had been flooded by inquiries from worried constituents and called for an end to sudden announcements from governments and airlines.
“COVID-19 has been in our community for a year and we are not seeing a sustainable approach to either international or domestic travel,” she said.
with Caitlin Fitzsimmons
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Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Anna Patty is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald with a focus on higher education. She is a former Workplace Editor, Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.