The states are becoming more willing to accept Australians who have been stranded overseas during the pandemic, as the Morrison government presses them on the issue so it can lift the weekly cap on arrivals from 4000 to 6000.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who has responsibility for administering the cap, has written to the states proposing NSW, Queensland and Western Australia each absorb an extra 500 arrivals a week and South Australia 360, to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantining.
“I want to make sure that more Australians can return home. There are some heart-wrenching stories,” Mr McCormack said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – whose state has accepted far more returnees than any other – said she would be willing to increase NSW’s intake if the other states did the same.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said his state would be willing to accept an extra 360 Australians returning from overseas a week, lifting its weekly limit to 600.
“We want to play our part in that national repatriation. We would also like to have a trial of international students coming back into Australia,” Mr Marshall said.
The ACT’s Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, said the nation’s capital – which is receiving no international flights – was willing to accommodate 150 people on a charter flight every 14 to 18 days.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk repeated her willingness to accept more people “where we have the capacity to do so” but backed federal Labor’s call for the Morrison government to use the RAAF’s VIP aircraft to fly people home.
WA Premier Mark McGowan slammed Mr McCormack for going public with the proposal, saying it was “very directly outside the spirit of the national cabinet”.
“I would’ve thought these things should be discussed at national cabinet rather than a letter being released to the press prior to being brought to the attention of the relevant premiers,” Mr McGowan said.
Mr McGowan argues the risk of another Victoria-style crisis – where lax infection controls among quarantine hotel security guards caused the state’s devastating second wave of infections – precludes the states from significantly increasing their ability to house returned travellers.
He said the Morrison government should use federal facilities such as immigration detention centres or defence bases for quarantining returning Australians to clear the backlog.
The government has rejected that idea, saying the Christmas Island immigration detention camp is at capacity and holding former prisoners waiting to be deported. Defence barracks are impractical because of shared bathrooms, while the risk of an outbreak infecting servicemen or women threatens defence capability.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said writing a letter was no substitute for a plan to get stranded Australians home.
“Let’s be clear: there is no offer from the Morrison government to do anything, and no agreement with the states and territories to boost quarantine places – only more blame shifting,” she said.
About 26,000 Australians have registered with DFAT to come home, with 3500 of them deemed vulnerable and likely to be given priority.
Under the current arrangements, arrivals into Sydney are capped at 350 people a day, Perth at 525 a week and Brisbane and Adelaide 500. Melbourne is offline until its outbreak is under control.
Thousands of Australians have become increasingly distraught and angry at being locked out of their country as airlines bump them from flights or force them to pay thousands of dollars to upgrade to business or first class to fit within the cap.
Labor has suggested airports in smaller cities be used to receive passengers, but this is uneconomic for airlines which need to carry freight out of Australia to offset their operating costs.
In the first two weeks of September, 41 overseas travellers were diagnosed with coronavirus while in quarantine.