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National cabinet will consider increasing the cap on international arrivals to Australia, after a reduction earlier in January to help combat more infectious strains of Covid-19.
Ahead of the meeting on Friday, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) revealed to Guardian Australia that it is dealing with a record number of complaints, driven in part by Covid-19 restrictions and Australians stranded overseas.
The national cabinet meeting will also consider vaccine implementation planning, seasonal worker arrangements and a bid from Queensland for new regional quarantine facilities.
On Thursday, Scott Morrison dampened hopes of a breakthrough on regional quarantine, warning more work was needed to persuade locals such an arrangement would benefit them.
State and territory leaders will consider international arrival caps, which were slashed by 2,500 per week at the 8 January meeting until 15 February in a bid to control the introduction of more infectious coronavirus strains from the UK and elsewhere.
The federal government believes there may be latitude to increase the caps because of longstanding promises for increased hotel quarantine capacity in Melbourne and because Queensland was able to prevent the spread of the super strain after the first known community transmission in Australia.
On Thursday the health minister, Greg Hunt, announced he had signed biosecurity orders to prevent the super strain including requiring PCR tests within 72 hours prior to departure for international travellers and masks on flights.
Australia’s international arrival cap and strict two-week hotel quarantine program has been key to its success suppressing the coronavirus, but has caused a backlog of 38,000 Australians overseas wanting to return home.
In October, the AHRC told Senate estimates that it feared the cap may breach international laws guaranteeing children can be reunited with their families and citizens cannot be excluded from their home.
The AHRC told Guardian Australia it had received 1,481 enquiries related to Covid-19 since 1 July 2020 and had accepted 495 complaints, including some from Australians overseas.
Not all of the 495 complaints were raised under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act (AHRCA), with some arising from other sources including federal discrimination legislation.
Nevertheless, the AHRC said: “In this financial year to date, the commission has seen an increase in complaints received under the AHRCA as compared to previous years.”
Complaints to the commission are confidential and are dealt with first by conciliation but may result in a report to the federal attorney general that the practice breaches human rights.
“The commission believes that legal reform is needed and Australians would benefit from having their rights and freedoms positively protected with a human rights act,” it said.
Ahead of the national cabinet meeting, the National Farmers Federation has pressed the Victorian government to allow workers in to address agricultural labour shortages. To date Queensland is the only state to deploy on-farm quarantining.
The federation’s chief executive, Tony Maher, said fruit and vegetable growers had lost $38m worth of crop due to labour shortages because states had displayed “indecision and stubbornness about where workers should spend their mandatory quarantine period, and who should pay for it”.
The Victorian Farmers Federation president, Emma Germano, said the Victorian government had “assured us a plan would be submitted to the federal government in December, we’re yet to see that delivered”.
The Queensland government is expected to present a range of proposals for regional quarantine, such as a mining camp in Calliope, near Gladstone.
On Thursday Morrison said that neither the federal government nor the Labor mayor, Matt Burnett, had seen the proposal.
“I spoke to a lot of people overnight as well and I think there are clear concerns here in Gladstone for a lot of quite sensible reasons,” he told reporters.
Morrison said locals “don’t want to see Brisbane’s issues dumped on the north”. They would have to be persuaded the arrangement would provide a “direct benefit”, such as increasing the number of seasonal workers, “rather than just transferring a problem from one part of Queensland to another”.
The national cabinet meeting will also consider the vaccine rollout, including the question of uniform public health orders about when a vaccine can be required.
The New South Wales premier has floated the possibility of incentivising vaccine take-up by requiring it to enter public buildings and private businesses such as pubs and clubs.
The leaders of Tasmania and the ACT have played down the idea, suggesting that at first vaccine requirements are likely to be limited to aged care and public health workforces and visitors to aged care, as is the case with the flu and measles vaccines.
Source: The Guardian
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