The federal government has all but admitted thousands of Australians will still be stuck overseas by Christmas, blaming a growing line of people and limits to hotel quarantine capacity.
But Labor has accused the Prime Minister of broken promises, saying the government was warned about those issues, as the list of Australians waiting to return grows to 37,000.
On Thursday, the Senate heard from stranded Australians overseas, with heartbreaking stories of eye-wateringly expensive failed attempts to get home.
Australia’s closed borders, strict hotel quarantine and caps on international arrivals have combined with surging COVID cases in countries popular with ex-pats to create a situation where tens of thousands of citizens want to return.
In September, nearly 27,000 overseas Australians had registered with the government their hope to come home. On September 18, Scott Morrison said he wanted to “get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas”,
Health Minister Greg Hunt said about the same time that “we want to ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas”.
But on Thursday Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials said there were 36,875 Australians still stuck overseas who had registered their interest to come home – a near 50 per cent increase on the number in September.
Just minutes earlier, Mr Morrison had said some 35,000 Australians had returned since September, boasting the government had “exceeded” its goal.
But the Senate’s committee focusing on COVID was hearing from government officials who admitted there was nuance in the PM’s numbers.
DFAT confirmed Mr Morrison was right to say 35,000 people had been brought back since he hoped in September to return “all of them”. But just 14,000 of those were on the official list at the time.
That means about 13,000 of September’s cohort are still waiting to get home – and they have been joined on government lists by an extra 23,000 Aussies.
DFAT also said the number of Australians classed as ‘vulnerable’, due to health or economic circumstances, had doubled in just weeks to 8000.
Officials said about 29,000 seats would be available on planes between now and December 25. That would leave at least 8000 Australians stuck overseas, and thousands still completing 14 days of hotel quarantine, on Christmas Day.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally accused Mr Morrison of a “broken promise”, tweeting she was “furious” about the numbers.
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) November 26, 2020
But Mr Morrison defended his September promises by claiming he was referring to “the numbers we currently had registered at that time”.
Mr Morrison said the increasing number of people wanting to come home was part of the problem. However, DFAT knew of that very problem, telling another parliamentary committee on September 2 that it “expects that the number of Australians registering an interest in returning will continue to increase”.
The PM also pointed the finger at airport arrivals caps and limited capacity of hotel quarantine.
“The ability to get people home to Australia depends on the available quarantine capacity,” he said on Thursday.
“State governments have requested to have caps on the number of Australians and arrivals who can come back, particularly in this time where quarantine is under pressure and that is the greatest risk of transmission of the virus into Australia. We understand that.”
Mr Morrison also pointed out that the government had supported flights, provided Australian Defence Force support in hotel quarantine, and had provided 24/7 consular help for those stuck overseas.
“Australia is moving everything we possibly can to get as many Australians home,” he said.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, appearing alongside the PM, would commit only to trying to get “as many Australians back in Australia before Christmas as we can”.
But those still remaining far from home say they just want to get back.
‘Heartbreaking’: families stuck overseas
The Senate committee also heard from Australians in that position, claiming they had been left frustrated at a lack of government support.
One mother was heartbroken after her attempts to help hundreds of other families with babies return home was met with silence from the government. Carly – who is in hotel quarantine in Australia – organised the campaign from Britain, with about 350 families registered to return.
She found an airline prepared to do the flights but was forced to abandon the plan after officials ignored her messages.
“It’s just heartbreaking for me because I can’t get home, I can’t get these people home,” she told the Senate inquiry.
“I feel that I’ve done everything in my power humanly possible to try and get involved and make a change, and nothing happened.”
David and Kate Jefferies also shared their struggle to return home from Canada, where they’ve been with their young son since March, after travelling to care for Mr Jefferies’ sick mother.
They’re booked on a December flight but expect to be bumped off, with their bill totalling about $50,000.
“We live in a state of constant uncertainty … we are simultaneously always leaving and never leaving,” Mr Jefferies told the inquiry.
“Being stranded is expensive and the Australian bills haven’t stopped just because we’re not home.”
Mr Jefferies’ is angry that sports teams and their families have been allowed into Australia, after Mr Morrison said Australians were at the front of the queue.
“We hope to raise our son to have more respect for the truth than the Prime Minister of Australia,” he said.