About 36,500 Australians stranded overseas and international students will have to wait longer to come to Australia, after Scott Morrison declared alternatives to hotel quarantine unsafe.
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Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Three weeks after saying he wanted to develop “innovative” alternatives, including quarantine in-home, on-farm or on-campus, the prime minister revealed Australia’s top health advisers consider they are “not … options we can safely take on”.
After national cabinet on Friday, Morrison told reporters in Canberra that Australia cannot yet take international students back and would therefore take an “Australians first” approach as it rations places in its cap of 6,000 arrivals per week.
© Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Scott Morrison provides a Covid update after Friday’s national cabinet meeting. He says alternatives to hotel quarantine such as in-home, on-farm or on-campus quarantine are not safe.
The continued restriction is a blow to Australia’s struggling university sector and the prospect of international business travel resuming before a widely available vaccine.
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Morrison thanked Queensland for agreeing on Friday to boost its contribution by 150 places per week and signalled extra capacity in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.
But with Victoria’s hotel quarantine program still suspended, Morrison said Australia could expect to bring just 25,000 Australians home by the year’s end, while 36,500 were registered to return. Capacity would grow when Melbourne resumes arrivals, he said.
“The challenges are still greater than the capacity to receive people in quarantine,” he said. Morrison noted that numbers of Australians intending to return had grown from 26,000 in mid-September and likened it to “a cup that keeps filling up”.
“Australia will maintain its quarantine arrangements for people coming from overseas,” he said.
In October the Halton review canvassed alternate sites for quarantine and the possible use of smartphone apps and wearable surveillance devices to allow travellers to quarantine at home.
But the acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said although there were some pilots of on-farm quarantine for seasonal workers from low-risk countries there were no “large-scale” alternatives to hotel quarantine.
Kelly noted “how dangerous the rest of the world is” – citing 157,000 new cases in the UK in the last week and 731,000 in the US – and credited hotel quarantine with Australia’s success excluding and containing the coronavirus.
Morrison said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the national cabinet had “taken a good look at [alternatives], and those options aren’t presenting”.
“We’ll keep looking. But I’m not going to raise an expectation that you could expect to see them.”
Morrison argued that hotel spots were not the only limit on arrivals, citing the use of police and health officials to maintain safe quarantine.
“The challenges we have in getting Australians home means the ability to … take international students back at this time through quarantine arrangements does not present itself.
“It’s Australians coming home first – that is the commonwealth policy.”