She said the Morrison government should also charter flights to pick up stranded citizens from countries such as the United Kingdom, India, the Philippines and Lebanon.
They could be quarantined in the Northern Territory, as occurred with a rescue flight from Wuhan earlier in the pandemic, or in the Australian Capital Territory. “That can happen again and it can happen now,” Senator Keneally said.
Charter flights could also utilise other international airports such as Canberra and the Gold Coast, which don’t receive returning travellers at present.
Under the national cap of 4000, Sydney takes in up to 2450 people a week, Brisbane takes up to 500, Perth up to 525 and Adelaide up to 500. However, as The Sun-Herald previously revealed, those caps are not being met.
Senator Keneally declined to say what number the cap should be. “The only number that matters is the 25,000 stranded Australians overseas,” she said. “At the end of the day, our international border and quarantine arrangements are federal government responsibilities. State governments should not continue to bear the burden of quarantine without federal assistance if it means stranded Australians can’t get home.”
Claire and Andrew Burles and their one-year-old son Chester are living in a Vancouver hotel while they try to find a flight back to Australia.
They had lived in Canada four years when the pandemic struck, but only sought to come home after Mr Burles lost his film industry job in June.
“We’re stuck,” Ms Burles said. “We don’t have the right to work, we don’t have the right to benefits. Our visas expire in October, which means at that point we’re cut off the healthcare system.”
Last month the family was bumped from a flight, and then cancelled another flight through Hong Kong on advice of the airline. They are now booked through New Zealand in a week’s time but fear they could be bumped again.
The airlines complain the national cap, the state caps and the individual flight caps (about 30 per plane) make it logistically difficult to run flights into Australia and fill seats, despite the demand.
“To me it just doesn’t make sense,” Ms Burles said. “How can my own government be OK with me becoming homeless due to a rule they’ve created?
Last week Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, whose federal infrastructure department is co-ordinating the inbound flights and caps, said the government had not ruled out additional rescue flights for stranded Australians. “We are considering every option,” he said.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said DFAT had expanded its assistance program for Australians in financial distress overseas. “Where commercial flights are not available, we continue to work with airlines and other governments to help Australians find ways to get home,” they said.
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.