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Anthony Albanese has called for RAAF VIP aircraft – including planes reserved for the prime minister and governor general – to be used to fly home the roughly 25,000 Australians stranded overseas.
The call comes as state leaders press the federal government to set up commonwealth quarantine facilities to help repatriate the Australians stuck overseas due to tight caps on international arrivals.
Pressure is mounting on the federal government to address the issue, with the Australian Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram, revealing more Australians have been permitted to leave the country, potentially adding to the numbers stranded overseas.
The current caps – which limit arrivals into Australia to about 4,000 per week – are designed to ease pressure on state and territory hotel quarantine systems.
State leaders argue they cannot increase their intakes with the “minimal support from the commonwealth” they have received so far.
The federal opposition leader criticised the Coalition for “non-action” on the matter.
“Scott Morrison continues to hand off everything to the states and territories and won’t accept responsibility,” Albanese said. “He clearly is in charge of our national boarders. He clearly is in charge of quarantine issues.
“What we know is that Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia have all said, if the commonwealth assists with quarantine issues, that they are responsible for, then they would certainly encourage more people to come.
“The only thing that is missing here isn’t hotel space, it’s leadership.”
To help solve the issue, the Labor leader called for RAAF VIP aircraft to be deployed to return the stranded Australians.
However, Albanese did not explain how this measure would address the strict caps on arrival numbers, or where passengers would quarantine, but said the federal government had the resources to determine this.
The political wrangling over international caps follows revelations by the ABF that exemptions to leave the nation have soared over the past month.
The ABF commissioner said his department had approved 47,000 requests for citizens to leave Australia since a ban was put in place in March, which marks an increase of about 13,000 approvals since 16 August.
In an interview with ABC earlier on Tuesday, Outram said that about 16,000 requests had been refused to date, adding that 99% of applications are responded to within 48 hours.
Of the approvals granted since the pandemic began, about 18,000 Australians had left the country in August alone, Outram revealed, noting “of course that just adds to the situation” of growing numbers of Australians stranded overseas.
“A lot of them actually got exemptions from me to travel overseas in the first place, and, whilst we advised them that there may be difficulties getting back, of course, you can never foresee how long that’s going to take, so I certainly hope that they’re back this side of Christmas,” Outram said.
Responding to calls for federal quarantine facilities – raised by the WA and NT governments this week – Outram said he imagined Australian Medical Assistance Teams were “pretty stretched” and would be unavailable in the numbers necessary to work at a federal facility.
“The caps on hotels is the critical point … I don’t have the authority to direct the states and territories to do anything,” he said.
The commissioner played down the suggestion that the commonwealth was responsible for stranded Australians, insisting states needed to increase their arrival intakes.
Outram’s comments follow a plea from the chief executive of Tourism Accommodation Australia for more hotels to be used in quarantine, as many were running under 10% capacity – a stark contrast from the beginning of the pandemic, when Sydney’s hotel quarantine system was able to accept 3,000 arrivals per day.
The caps were introduced then tightened by national cabinet in July.
Sydney airport accepts about 350 international passengers per day, while Perth takes roughly 525 arrivals per week, with Brisbane and Adelaide each taking 500 people per week. Melbourne currently takes no arrivals, while Canberra and Darwin accept flights on a case-by-case basis.
On Tuesday, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said he was not ready to reopen Melbourne airport to international arrivals, saying “at this stage, our focus needs to be elsewhere and I apologise for any challenges”.
Flights have been landing with fewer than 30 passengers, and as few as four economy passengers, as airlines prioritise more expensive tickets to remain profitable under the cap.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Labor calls for RAAF VIP planes to be used to repatriate 25,000 stranded Australians | Australia news