Most Australian states will restore their international arrival caps to December 2020 levels from 15 February 2021, following a decision at Friday’s National Cabinet meeting. But Western Australia will retain its reduced arrival cap of just 512 passengers per week until further notice, as Perth emerges from a 5-day COVID-19 lockdown.
From 15 February 2021, the new weekly international arrival caps in each state will be as follows:
- New South Wales – restored to 3,010 passengers per week (50% increase)
- Queensland – restored to 1,000 passengers per week (50% increase)
- South Australia – increasing to 530 passengers per week (was 490)
- Victoria – increasing to 1,310 passengers per week (was 1,120)
- Western Australia – remains at 512 passengers per week
The increase in arrival caps is welcome news for the many Australians still desparately trying to return home from overseas. But even with last month’s capacity increase at the Howard Springs quarantine facility near Darwin, the new arrival caps are still below the old caps in place before the federal government temporarily reduced the caps in early January.
Prior to January’s announcement, Australia was able to accept around 6,900 weekly arrivals from overseas including through the Howard Springs facility. The number is now around 4,550 per week, and will increase to just under 6,800 weekly arrivals from 15 February.
Tens of thousands of Australians still stuck overseas
Unfortunately, that’s still well short of what’s needed to bring all the stranded Australians home. The government recently said that around 36,000 Australians have registered with DFAT as being stuck overseas, and this number has been repeated many times by media outlets as representing the number of Australians trying to return. But this number is very likely understated.
The true number of Australians trying to come home is likely far higher, as many have not registered with DFAT. And although the majority of people currently arriving in Australia are Australian citizens, permanent residents or their immediate family members, they are also competing for spots in hotel quarantine with a limited number of foreign nationals with approved exemptions for essential travel to Australia. None of these people would be registered with DFAT either, as they aren’t Australians.
The DFAT registration portal advises Australians not to register if they “aren’t planning to return just yet” or “don’t need help returning”. So there would be many Aussies who have booked commercial flights, or are intending to return home soon, who feel they don’t need help right now and therefore haven’t registered yet. In any case, DFAT says that registering does not guarantee assistance with returning to Australia so some won’t bother.
Unfortunately, many Australians with confirmed commercial plane tickets are getting bumped from their flights closer to the departure date. So, many more Australians who don’t think they currently need assistance will likely register in the future.
Even if we assume the total number of Australians trying to board a flight home is actually 36,000 – and the number doesn’t grow at all over time – it would still take until at least the end of March to clear the backlog.
Government considers expanding quarantine program
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended Australia’s hotel quarantine system and said it would remain the “primary system” for processing returning travellers for the foreseeable future. According to Mr Morrison, 211,000 people have now been through hotel quarantine in Australia since it was introduced in March 2020.
However, the federal government is planning to further expand capacity at Howard Springs. It’s also currently assessing a proposal to accommodate returned travellers in a quarantine facility near Toowoomba in regional Queensland. Mr Morrison said that more information was still needed before any decision would be made, particularly in regards to the cost, workforce arrangements and the potential impact on existing local health facilities in Toowoomba. Under this arrangement, charter flights would likely bring returning Australians to Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport.
A previous proposal from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to quarantine travellers in mining camps near Gladstone does not seem to have gained much traction.
Vaccinated arrivals will still need to quarantine “until further notice”
At his National Press Club Address last Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that international borders and quarantine would continue “in a balanced way” throughout 2021.
Asked after Friday’s National Cabinet meeting whether vaccinated international arrivals would still need to complete 14 days of hotel quarantine, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said that quarantine would still be mandatory “until further notice”. The government would review its position, he said, once further evidence is available on whether COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing onward transmission of the coronavirus.
You can join the discussion on Australian Frequent Flyer’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) & Travel forum.