Australia to ease cap on citizens returning amid increasing anger

Government under fire over policy that has left at least 26,000 people stranded overseas.

A Qantas plane lands at Kingsford Smith International Airport in Sydney, Australia, February 22, 2018. ]File: Reuters /Daniel Munoz/Global Business Week Ahead]

Australia will allow a few hundred more citizens and permanent residents to return home from overseas each week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday, in slight relaxation of a policy that has become the target of increasing criticism.

Since July, the government has capped the number of people allowed to return arguing the restriction was necessary to reduce the threat from COVID-19, even though all arrivals are required to complete a 14-day hotel quarantine that they must pay for themselves.

The country’s borders are closed to foreign nationals although a “travel bubble” started recently allowing New Zealand citizens to travel to Australia.

Morrison said the cap will rise to 5,865 people in November, an increase of 290, after Western Australia and Queensland states said they could accommodate more people. Western Australia agreed to take an extra 140 returnees each week and Queensland 150.

The government is under increasing pressure to help at least 26,000 Australians who want to come home but have been unable to do so because of the limits. Many have struggled to secure a plane ticket amid frequent cancellations and raise the money to pay for the hotel quarantine.

“The most effective way to get Australians home is to increase these caps,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

Looking to offer more support, Morrison’s government earlier this month struck a deal with the Northern Territory government to allow up to 500 people every two weeks to return in an arrangement that is outside the arrival limit.

Vulnerable citizens

The first of some eight repatriation flights from around the world is due in Darwin – on Australia’s northern coast – on Friday, according to local media. The flight from London is carrying people identified as “vulnerable” including eight newborn babies, the elderly and people with young families, TV network 9News said.

Other flights are being arranged from South Africa, India and more from the UK.

The relaxation on arrivals comes as Victoria – the country’s second-most populous state and the epicentre of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak – on Friday reported that active coronavirus cases had fallen to a four-month low.

Australia opened a  ‘Trans-Tasman travel bubble’ with New Zealand last week [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Victoria says it now has 100 active cases – the lowest since June 19 – and recorded just one new case over the past 24 hours.

“This is a good number. This is a very clear sign that the strategy is working,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.

The active cases are a relief to state authorities amid heightened fears of a fresh cluster after a case in a school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs prompted authorities to order 800 people to self-isolate.

Australia has recorded more than 27,400 cases of COVID-19, far fewer than many other developed countries. Victoria accounts for more than 90 percent of the country’s 905 deaths.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies