The federal opposition has urged the Morrison government to use air force planes to bring home thousands of Australians left stranded by the pandemic.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the Royal Australian Air Force’s VIP fleet could be used to fly home some of the estimated 25,000 Australians stuck overseas because of border closures and grounded flights.
“We’re hearing stories that are flooding electorate offices around the
country, of desperate people. We have a woman with a one-year-old child told to go to a homeless shelter. We have women who are about to give birth, desperate to get home,” Mr Albanese said.
He said the federal government was responsible for the country’s international borders, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had access to the RAAF fleet.
“This would be a practical step which would make a major difference,” Mr Albanese said.
It came as the Western Australian government said it would take more returning Australians if they could be quarantined in Commonwealth facilities.
International arrivals to WA have been capped at 525 a week since July to ease the burden on its hotel quarantine system. Hotel quarantine has been under further strain since Victoria barred all arrivals as its second wave of the coronavirus gathered pace.
NSW has taken the bulk of returned Australians during the pandemic, and Premier Gladys Berejiklian has repeatedly called on other states to share more of the burden.
On Tuesday, WA Premier Mark McGowan said if the Commonwealth was willing to open its facilities to returning Australians, he would be willing to have the state’s the cap increased.
“Basically, we’re taking virtually our entire share,” Mr McGowan told the ABC.
“But if we want to increase it, the way to do it is open up more facilities, particularly Commonwealth facilities, and we’re more than happy to work with the Commonwealth to do that.”
Mr McGowan flagged several facilities in WA.
“There is Christmas Island, there is Yongah Hill [immigration detention centre]. There are the defence bases with numerous accommodation facilities both in Western Australia and all over the country,” he said.
“They could literally take thousands of people into those if they wanted to, and I think that would be a good back-up to what the state is doing.”
The Northern Territory has also said it is open to more international arrivals.
But Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram said the proposal would not work.
Christmas Island is now being used as a detention facility.
And Mr Outram said Australian Medical Assistance Teams used to staff Howard Springs were tied up elsewhere.
“Quarantine facilities can’t be run without medical professionals on the ground,” Mr Outram told ABC radio.
“At the moment the AUSMAT capability, I imagine, would be pretty stretched because of the need for the states and territories to be running their own health services, plus other things going on around the pandemic.”
Mr Outram said the ABF was working with the states to maximise hotel quarantine capacity, with about 12,000 beds available at any one time.
“But it’s not enough, if I’m being honest,” he said.
“As long as the caps remain with the hotel quarantine in place it’s going to be difficult to envision a situation where the airlines will start bringing more passengers.”
The infrastructure department is working with international airlines to manage incoming flights.
“If that (hotel quarantine) cap was to be doubled overnight we’d be delighted, we could certainly facilitate those people through the border,” Mr Outram said.
“I’ve got no doubt the airlines would take up the additional capacity.”
Mr Outram defended his decision to allow movie star Tom Hanks and his entourage into the country when so many Australians were desperate to get home.
The ABF boss said stimulating economic activity was one factor he had to take into account.
But he insisted business travellers did not take precedence over people travelling on compassionate grounds.
People trying to leave Australia must also argue their case, with 47,000 people granted travel exemptions since the border closed in March.
Tony Abbott was recently allowed to travel to London as a representative of Australia, under a category that also accommodates government ministers and defence personnel.
Mr Outram said the former PM was granted approval to address a parliament inquiry in Britain. Mr Abbott is now back in Australia, reportedly in hotel quarantine in Sydney.