Pressure is mounting on the federal government to set up a commonwealth-managed quarantine facility to help repatriate more than 25,000 Australians who are stranded overseas due to flight caps, with Western Australia now backing the push.
The fresh intervention by the WA health minister, Roger Cook, follows months of what he said was “minimal support from the commonwealth” in managing the state’s current hotel quarantine system.
The Labor minister told the Guardian that “helping returning Australians stuck overseas is a commonwealth responsibility” and the state could only offer to repatriate citizens “within our means and within our already determined cap”.
Cook said a federally managed quarantine facility taking additional arrivals “would help bring more Australians home and will ensure the state government’s hotel quarantine system is not under undue pressure and vulnerable to problems like those previously experienced in Victoria”.
His comments come after the Northern Territory health minister, Natasha Fyles, revealed that a facility near Darwin was “well set up” to take 3,000 international arrivals and talks had begun with the federal Coalition government.
Federal Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, has previously called on Canberra to “step up” and “show leadership” amid reports stranded Australians were being forced to camp in airports overseas.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, on the weekend said the current caps – which limit arrivals into Australia to about 4,000 per week – were a “function of” state and territory government decisions.
Sydney airport accepts about 350 international passengers per day, while Perth takes about 525 arrivals per week, with Brisbane and Adelaide each taking 500 people per week. Melbourne currently takes no arrivals, while Canberra and Darwin accept flights on a case-by-case basis.
Flights have been landing with fewer than 30 passengers, and as few as four economy passengers, as airlines prioritise more expensive tickets to remain profitable under the cap.
The caps, which were introduced then tightened in July, are designed to ease pressure on state and territory hotel quarantine system. Leaders requested the caps at the national cabinet, and the commonwealth, which governs international borders, enforced the limits.
Fyles said on Monday that talks were underway with the federal government about expanding the use of the Howard Springs facility near Darwin to quarantine overseas arrivals.
Fyles said Howard Springs was “well set up” and could quarantine up to 3,000 people. It currently has about 1,000 people staying there.
“There is certainly room, it’s huge,” she said. “There would be a lot of work to be undertaken if we were to see international flights arriving into the Northern Territory. It’s the health and safety of Territorians that comes first but NT is certainly open to that.”
Fyles said the facility had already housed people who were evacuated from Wuhan in China and the Diamond Princess cruise ship at the start of the pandemic.
Cook’s comments that increasing WA’s caps could lead to “undue pressure” on the state’s quarantine system followed the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, on Monday calling on WA, South Australia and Queensland to take their “fair share” of arrivals and increase their caps.
Berejiklian warned if she were to increase NSW’s intake it would drain resources currently devoted to contact tracing.
“NSW welcomes back around 2,500 people every week, and we know the hotel quarantine system in NSW is managed well, but we’re doing so much more than all the other states combined,” the Liberal premier said.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, on Monday said the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack – whose portfolio has governance over the caps – contacted her to discuss increasing the state’s intake.
“I hope to be able to give an update to national cabinet on Friday,” she said.
Last Friday, when the Guardian asked McCormack if it was considering federal quarantine facilities or extra resources to boost state quarantine capacities, a spokesman did not address the question specifically.
Australians stranded around the world have complained airlines are repeatedly cancelling their tickets home, as they face months away from their jobs, families and secure accommodation.
Citizenship law experts have also raised concerns the arrival caps are unconstitutional. The caps are currently in place until 24 October.
– with Australian Associated Press