Australians stranded in Europe have been plunged into further despair after a major Middle Eastern airline suspended outbound flights from Britain.
Thousands of Australian citizens could be hit by the decision by Emirates, which came after the British government banned incoming passenger flights from the United Arab Emirates.
Visitors arriving in Britain from the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda will be banned from entering from 11pm on Thursday (local time) as Prime Minister Boris Johnson moves to prevent the spread of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa.
Emirates confirmed to the ABC on Friday morning that it had cancelled all flights from London to Dubai as a result of the British move. That cuts off a vital route for Australians to get home, with the key transit hub of Dubai off limits indefinitely.
Britain’s ban came after authorities said the South African variant might already have spread to the country, which has already had more than 100,000 coronavirus deaths.
Carriers from the UAE are among the few airlines who have continued to fly to Australia, despite ongoing caps on returning overseas arrivals and an almost year-long international travel ban.
Earlier in January, national cabinet cut caps on the number of returning travellers amid concerns about managing hotel quarantine and because of the emerging new strains of the virus.
NSW takes about 1500 people a week, and Victoria 1100. Queensland and Western Australia each take about 500 returned Australians and permanent residents. The caps are not due to be reviewed until February 15.
After the Emirates announcement, the Australian consulate in London tweeted the government was working with the airline and its local competitor Etihad to “understand the impact on outbound travel from the UK”.
There are fears Etihad might soon follow Emirates, ruling Abu Dhabi out of bounds too.
About 38,000 Australians stuck overseas have told the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that they want to return, according to government figures.
“We have a Prime Minister who told people that he would get them home by Christmas last year – he did not do so,” Penny Wong, Labor’s spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, told ABC News on Friday.
“We have a government led by Mr Morrison which has refused to step up to ensure a safe national quarantine system, and until he does that, we will continue to see these sorts of events which prevent Australian citizens from coming home.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also said it was time for the federal government to take full responsibility for COVID quarantine across Australia.
Under the constitution, the Commonwealth is responsible for quarantining international arrivals, but states and territories have agreed to do so in city hotels and a camp since the pandemic began.
“Just as we weren’t willing to take chances when we declared a public health emergency 12 months ago, we are not willing to take chances when it comes to keeping new and more infectious strains out of Queensland,” Ms Palaszczuk wrote on Twitter.
“That’s why I am publicly calling on the Prime Minister to take greater responsibility for international quarantine.”
She wants a federally-run and funded national quarantine system with adequate Australian Defence Force and Border Force staffing.
She said Mr Morrison should also consider consolidating many hotel quarantine sites into centralised hubs.
“With potentially another unpredictable year ahead of us, now is the time for the prime minister to step up to his responsibilities and put in place a well-funded, adequately resourced, nationally consistent international quarantine plan,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
Once again on Friday, Australia’s only coronavirus infections were in returned travellers in hotel quarantine. Victoria and Queensland each had one more case, while NSW had three..