“The federal government needs to explain what its plan is to bring stranded Australians home and what its plan is to deal with the quarantine aspects of that,” Labor deputy leader Richard Marles said on Monday.
“The states have been put on the front line here but it’s actually the federal government’s responsibility and they’re the ones who have gone completely missing.”
The federal government says about 440,000 Australians have returned since the start of the coronavirus pandemic but about 37,000 remain overseas and are seeking help to come home.
About 220,000 people have been processed in hotel quarantine, with roughly 125,000 in NSW and 36,000 in Victoria, but a review by former public servant Jane Halton last year recommended more “surge” capacity in the system.
Ms Halton did not recommend a federal takeover but named Howard Springs as a good candidate as an emergency centre because it had a capacity of about 3000 beds.
While Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said several times that Ms Halton recommended Exmouth in Western Australia as a quarantine location, her report named the Learmonth base near Exmouth but did not recommend it.
The federal plans focus on Howard Springs but do not envisage taking it to 3000 places, with a more modest expansion to 2000 places being discussed in recent days.
The government has pushed back at other options such as remote locations on the grounds that these would be too far from airports, hospitals, quarantine workers, food supplies and other support services.
“I doubt that would work quite as well for some of the commercial flights that are coming back. I expect they would want to land at Melbourne Airport.
“Hopefully we can have a productive discussion at national cabinet.”
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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.