At least 23,000 Australians stranded around the world will be hoping national cabinet decides to ease strict arrival caps when it meets on Friday, however key states remain hesitant to increase their intakes without further federal support.

Despite pressure on the Morrison government to repatriate its citizens, the Guardian understands Western Australian, Queensland and Australian Capital Territory leaders are unlikely to volunteer to increase how many returned Australians they take into hotel quarantine.

As the number of Australians overseas who have registered their intent to return soared from 18,800 a fortnight ago to 23,000 this week, the government has said national cabinet will review the caps, which are making it harder for them to return.

The caps – which were introduced in July and limit arrivals into Australia to about 4,000 a week – were recently extended by national cabinet until 24 October, however reports have emerged of Australians with economy, and increasingly business, flight tickets repeatedly having their tickets cancelled by airlines seeking to comply with the caps. Airlines have acknowledged prioritising more valuable tickets to cover the cost of flying planes with as few as 30 passengers.

While Labor has called on the government to set up federal quarantine facilities in remote areas so it doesn’t need to rely on states for a mass repatriation, the trade and tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, on Thursday reiterated the position that “it’s a cap that is informed and driven entirely by what the states and territories tell us they can safely accommodate through their quarantine facilities”.

While the Western Australian premier, Michael McGowan, is very aware of the issue of stranded citizens, he believes Perth airport’s current cap of 525 arrivals per week is manageable and “working well”, a source said.

This was backed up by a WA government spokeswoman, who told the Guardian “Covid-19 measures including the hard border, quarantine measures, contact tracing and testing will stay in place, to protect the health and safety of all West Australians”.

“These protection measures are supported by Western Australia’s request for an international arrivals cap and more robust measures to limit arrivals from NSW and Victoria where there is a heightened risk,” she said.

“While there has been no community transmission in Western Australia we simply can’t afford to get complacent, because the virus could sneak back into WA and spread rapidly.”

The ACT – where Canberra airport’s arrivals are determined on a flight by flight basis – has been taking limited numbers of repatriation flights, but has signalled its health and emergency services does not currently have the capacity to monitor and enforce requirements for more returned travellers.

However, a spokesman said the ACT government was working on ways it could take more international flights.

“We are doing the work now to make sure that when we do have the capacity to take another flight – we will be able to do so in the safest possible way,” he said.

The Guardian understands the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, who has come under criticism for declaring the ACT a hotspot and effectively closing her state to its residents, believes limiting Brisbane’s arrivals to about 500 per week – its current cap – should not be changed.

New South Wales has the largest caps, taking in 350 passengers per day.

Victoria, which has a cap of zero, is not expected to increase its limit until it further contains its Covid-19 outbreak.


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