Australia is among the front-running nations for its protection of public health during the novel coronavirus pandemic, yet disproportionate travel restrictions that include caps on inbound flights and irresponsibly limited quarantine capacity have left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas. The success of comparable countries like New Zealand and Taiwan in containing the virus without barring the return of residents proves that it’s possible to protect the whole population without inflicting undue hardship.
Australia’s flight caps and quarantine places should have been doubled months ago, yet, in January 2021, almost a year into the pandemic, Australian state and federal governments announced that they will drastically reduce them. Already escalated beyond crisis point the backlog of stranded Aussies is set to increase thanks to the paranoia, incompetence and lack of political will shared by Australian governments.
An inaction plan
In March 2020, the Morrison government announced a travel ban prohibiting Australians from exiting the country without an essential travel exemption. The federal government issued an advice for Australian tourists to return home, warning that airlines may reduce flights, while expatriate Australians with homes and jobs were advised to stay in place if safe to do so. Europe and other locations were locking down and there were difficulties for Australians trying to return from various countries due to numerous cancelled flights. However, most countries and airlines gradually began opening up routes. Since then all travellers to Australia, with few exceptions, have been subjected to mandatory quarantine.
Early July, however, in response to lax infection control measures in Victorian hotel quarantine that resulted in a significant coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposed draconian inbound flight caps. The caps limited inbound passengers to 6,000 per week. At times they rose to just over 7,000, hopelessly inadequate for the number of Australians needing to return, let alone to allow entry to foreign nationals on temporary visas. Many citizens and permanent residents had their tickets cancelled, and a growing backlog of Aussies remain stranded overseas with around 40,000 currently registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading (DFAT) seeking urgent return. No end date to the caps was set, and no plan was made to increase them.
In January 2021, the Morrison government reduced inbound flight caps again to around 4,200 passengers per week, using a non-evidence based excuse that a new coronavirus strain from the UK, that has not resulted in any outbreak in Australia, poses some incalculable risk to the Australian population. That decision was embraced with zeal by Australian state premiers in WA, Queensland and NSW who reduced their quarantine intake by half. Victoria’s quarantine was already reduced.
Why the stranded Aussies backlog?
The travel ban put in place in March 2020 prohibited Australians from leaving for all but essential travel. Even so, the federal government has issued well over 100,000 exemptions for Australians to exit since. Exemptions are difficult to get. They’re only available for limited reasons including travel for long term work or a serious illness in the family and the majority of applications are declined. Yet Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that departures from Australia have outnumbered arrivals since the travel caps were put in place. From March to November 77,000 Australian citizens exited. Permanent residents also require an exemption however the number that exited is not identifiable in the ABS figures. Either way, in December, federal minister for Health Greg Hunt confirmed that 95,000 exemptions had been granted since March. And still the Morrison government did nothing to ensure there would be adequate quarantine capacity when citizens and residents needed to get back, let alone to address the backlog of those already stuck, plus the temporary visa holders that are entitled to enter.
This was done knowingly. The federal government was aware that hundreds of thousands of Australians reside overseas. The Board of Airline Representatives Australia identified months ago that around 100,000 Australians were holding unused return tickets and maintains the view that the real number of stranded Aussies is up to 100,000. Allowing only 6,000 – 7,500 passengers per week to enter was never going to ensure they could back and now those caps are cut to 4,200. A limit of 30 passengers is allowed on inbound flights.
In addition, the Morrison government has allowed entry to foreign nationals on temporary visas. ABS stats show 6,000 entered in November (3,560 in September, 5,700 in October). Those included celebrities and professional sportspeople able to afford business class tickets at inflated prices. In other words, up to a quarter of quarantine places were taken by foreign nationals. This is not an objection to them entering Australia but dismay at governmental failure to ensure quarantine is available to all those with valid reasons to get here.
The Australian government has not prioritised the return of citizens and PRs. Foreign airlines are deciding who gets a seat on near empty flights and Australians have found themselves bumped when someone wealthier pays a higher price. The government also permitted special arrangements to import international students and tennis entourages, but have strongly resisted stranded Aussies’ attempts to arrange their own chartered flights.
As has been the case for months, in January 2021, only business class seats were available on the foreseeable sparse flights from the UK and USA. One way tickets were $13,000 (AUD) from London and $21,000 from Los Angeles. That was prior to Morrison reducing the caps. Qantas is grounded, except for federal government organised repatriation flights, which are now also reduced. Repatriation flights usually run at around 200 passengers but the starting price for seats are over $2,000. In the scramble for seats, many travellers find no other option than business class, at prices inflated well beyond the usual. This family of four was quoted $30k for a one way repatriation flight.
How does Australia compare with Taiwan and New Zealand?
While Australia has been successful in comparison to most developed nations, its efforts lag behind those of Taiwan and New Zealand. All have a mandatory quarantine requirement for international arrivals (with few exemptions) and quarantine is generally undertaken in hotels. However, New Zealand and Taiwan have accepted roughly twice the number of international arrivals per capita than Australia. Accordingly, there is no controversy in Taiwan or New Zealand about their residents’ freedom to return to their country. Their numbers indicate what would be a realistic cap on inbound flights for Australia’s population. Australia’s capacity for quarantine and its inbound caps needed to be doubled, at least. Not halved. The cap should be at least 15,000 per week which could be reduced if and when the surplus is cleared.
Table: Comparing international arrivals and departures and pandemic management Oct, Nov 2020
|Cumulative COVID-19 cases (deaths) 8 Jan 2021||28,571 (909)||822 (7)||2,188 (25)|
|Arrivals October 2020 (citizens)||24,700 (12.3k)||42,863 (23.9k)||12,392*|
|Arrivals November 2020||29,800 (15.5k)||53,238 (32.1k)||not available yet|
|Departures October 2020||47,000 (11.9k)||43,705 (30.4k)||13,946*|
|Departures November 2020||45,500 (11k)||37,526 (23.6k)||not available yet|
While arrival and departure numbers in parentheses indicate the number of citizens’ movements, numbers of permanent residents are less clear. None of the countries are allowing tourist entries. The numbers therefore represent essential travel related to family, work and study. *NZ stats count citizens who live overseas as non-residents so it’s not possible to provide a comparison of citizens as differentiated from permanent residents.
Comparison with Vietnam
Australia also lags behind world leading, Vietnam, a developing nation with a population of 97m and land borders with four countries, and only 1599 total infections and 35 deaths. Vietnam is the most successful nation in the world so far at protecting its citizens from the outbreak and has done so at relatively low cost with very limited lockdowns. Vietnam was also a world leader at containing the 2003 SARS pandemic. I wasn’t able to find figures for Vietnam citizens’ international movements, however its government has allowed its citizens to enter and leave on commercial flights. It offers a range of quarantine options including low cost accommodation at army facilities up to various classes of hotels. The Vietnam government also operated 260 repatriation flights returning over 75,000 citizens from 59 countries, including a rescue flight to return a number of Covid positive workers stranded in Equatorial Guinea.
Abandoning evidence-based policy – the politics of flight caps
Again ABS stats show that over 171,000 people arrived in Australia between April and November after mandatory quarantine was introduced. That means that something close to that number of travellers have been through Australia’s hotel quarantine system. There was one serious outbreak in July from a Melbourne quarantine hotel and very few other leaks. Other than the Victorian outbreak, the Australian states have implemented efficient test, trace and isolate systems that have averted major spread.
According to NSW Department of Health figures, the infection rate among inbound travellers is currently 1% (pp.21-22) having risen from 0.7% in October 2020. Fifty-five percent of the infections found in quarantine in December 2020 were acquired in three countries, the USA, the UK and India.
While it’s understandable that Scott Morrison imposed flight caps to reduce the number of Covid-19 positive travellers from entering the country during the Victorian crisis, the inertia since is inexplicable. Premier Daniel Andrews stopped all international passenger flights to the state for several months, and since his hotel quarantine system resumed it’s taken only 1,100 passengers per week. Taking a leaf out of Morrison’s panic manual, on New Years Day Andrews closed state borders at 36 hours notice due to an outbreak in Sydney that caused a minor outbreak in Melbourne. That continues to prevent many Victorians from returning to their homes despite the low number of transmissions. Every other state has managed small outbreaks by allowing residents to isolate at home.
Flimsy excuses for shirking responsibility
The refusal to expand quarantine capacity appeared at first to be an impasse between state and federal governments over who bears responsibility. The latest excuse to reduce the caps is the threat of the UK B117 variant strain, but there is no evidence that the recognised infection control measures against COVID-19 are not effective against it. Experts assert that there is no need for panic in countries with a record of effective infection control.
As the figures above show, the B117 strain has been found to be 30-50% more transmissible. That is, 15% of contacts will catch the virus, up from 11% on earlier strains. The ‘new’ variant was identified in September 2020 in the UK, a country that did not make any realistic attempt to get on top of test, trace, isolate, and where public hygiene measures have been hopelessly substandard. Australia has proven it is capable of meeting the required hygiene standards and dealing with outbreaks as they occur.
In Australia, actively preventing people from returning home during a pandemic is passed off as a legitimate public health measure.
Morrison’s halving of the caps with the enthusiastic support of all the premiers indicates that no Australian government has any intention of assisting growing numbers of stranded Aussies. It shows that the Australian stalemate between jurisdictions was never a conflict about responsibility but a shared determination to avoid it. This disproportionate level of risk aversion is not warranted by the infection rates in Australia, or any scientific rationale. It seems more to do with election chances and stinginess. Put plainly, none of these governments want the budgetary or political fallout if they mess up as badly as the Andrews government did. Scott Morrison and the premiers are more interested in having nice looking domestic numbers than addressing the large scale humanitarian disaster unfolding among their own citizens dispersed overseas.
Meanwhile, those effected have been dismayed by the lack of empathy from their compatriots who’ve accepted paranoid political rhetoric that overstates the risks of allowing residents to safely return home. It seems many Australians prefer that victims stay offshore and out of sight. However, if political leaders continue to stall while awaiting vaccine distribution, as it appears they intend to, that means at least another six months of serious hardship for many tens of thousands including children, the sick, disabled and elderly.
Vexed quarantine — resolute inaction
The PM, premiers and some in the media seem intent on perpetuating the perception that returning Aussies are the threat and not their government’s failings on infection control.
The inbound infection control system needs to be rapidly expanded and that can only be done safely if governments heed the expert advice they commissioned. So far two inquiry reports have recommended changes. Jennifer Coate SC’s public inquiry report into the Victorian debacle recommended tightening staffing and hygiene procedures which Andrews appears to have worked on, notwithstanding an inexplicable delay. In addition, both the Coate report and Jane Halton’s report for the federal government recommended implementing tech monitored alternatives to hotel quarantine, similar to those used in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, for low risk inbound travellers. Yet, Australians currently returning from Vietnam and Taiwan where community spread is either negligible or non-existent are still taking up quarantine space for 14 days at a time in hotels, even if they arrive on direct flights. After all this time, when more sensible options should have been implemented, passengers that present negligible or zero transmission risk are still not allowed to be exempted or managed in self-isolation.
A national quarantine facility? Going remote?
The Halton report also recommended the establishment of a national quarantine facility but provided no detail, referring only to Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, which she claimed had capacity for 3,000 passengers. However, with the necessary social distancing measures, that facility has a maximum capacity of 850 (or 425 per week). Some media doctors have also called for the construction of remote facilities but have not put forward numbers with regard to the capacity required (a total 25k – 30k spaces are required nationally per fortnight), the costs involved or the time it would take to construct, staff them, and accommodate staff, or how they would ensure their proximity to advanced medical facilities. Further, the transfer of large numbers of returnees to remote facilities would increase infection risk by adding an extra leg to their trip, increasing their exposure to other travellers and staff. No evidence has been presented by commentators that remote facilities would be safer or more efficient for the outlay required.
The other big fib is that ‘quarantine is a federal responsibility’ under the Australian constitution. It is not. Federal Labor leaders are misleading Australians by misrepresenting a legislative power with an obligation. The state Labor leaders never use that argument. Not because it’s false but because they’re fully on board with Morrison’s travel ban. That said, legal experts raise concern that the federal government could be doing more. Either way we have bipartisan effort from state and federal govs to avoid responsibility while the #strandedAussies crisis deteriorates.
There’s certainly a strong argument for getting the federal government to pull its weight. Jennifer Coate mentioned in her report that there was no Commonwealth plan for quarantine in its pandemic preparations prior to COVID-19, and there’s no still no sign of one. A national quarantine strategy and standard would be helpful, but if ALP leaders were serious about getting repatriation moving, they’d push the federal government for more assistance. Given the Morrison government’s all round incompetence and fondness for channeling vast amounts of public money to their mates I’d have little faith in any federally run facility.
Ignoring the experts
While the Victorian government adopted some of the measures recommended by Jennifer Coate, Andrews has imposed draconian conditions for inmates that she recommended against — such as locking them inside their rooms for 14 days with non-opening windows and no exercise breaks, and prohibiting most deliveries. The Morrison government adopted none of the Halton report recommendations and has done nothing toward Australia’s infection control efforts aside from deploy the army to hotel quarantine sites and impose flight caps.
Better, more flexible quarantine
Australian states charge between $2,500 to $3,000 per person for singles and up to $6,000 for families for quarantine. The majority of inmates are locked in unserviced rooms for 14 days with no access to fresh air or exercise breaks. The food is reportedly terrible and most travellers go to the additional expense of ordering food deliveries from approved providers.
In contrast, Taiwanese travellers are able to choose from a range of hotel rooms beginning at two thirds of the price per night. Deliveries and room service meals are not restricted. Taiwan and Vietnam have reduced quarantine time for some short term business travellers. New Zealand is also cheaper, many residents are exempt from quarantine fees, and fresh air and exercise breaks are allowed. No regime is perfect but both countries have proven able to manage occasional free-range cases via their test, trace, isolate strategies.
Another area where the NZ and Taiwan systems are superior is in having passengers entering those countries pre-book their quarantine place. Australians, on the other hand, are at the mercy of government allocations and risk losing their air tickets at the last minute. Relatives with two young children returning from a long residence in Europe were told their business class seats would not be confirmed until they reached the airport just hours before their flight. Airline staff then had to await confirmation from DFAT that quarantine spaces were available. It was stressful for everyone involved seeing they’d shipped their household belongings to Australia months earlier and struggled even to get business class flights home. Many Australians have been bumped from flights at short notice because the government cited insufficient quarantine spaces.
‘They should have come home when they were told to’
Stranded Aussies are tired of ignorant statements like that. Few are aware of the original advice to those overseas, or the circumstances abroad, or that the Morrison government issued so many exit exemptions. Essential travel is unavoidable and the government should have made allowances for it months ago – to make sure those leaving could get back.
In March 2020, the Australian government warned those overseas that foreign borders and airports might close. At no point did it warn that it would be the Australian government that would impose unrealistic caps on its own citizens and residents at short notice, and that the wealthy, including foreign nationals, would be given priority to enter. It was our government that in effect closed the border to Australians long after most air routes had resumed and without providing an end date or making a plan to address the inevitable increase in people stranded. Since then, multiple airlines have abandoned routes into Australia because it is not viable for them to operate long haul flights at a maximum of 10% capacity.
Otherwise, many of those who were overseas had homes, jobs, businesses, children in school, family overseas, and sick relatives. Multiple flight cancellations, lockdowns and changing circumstances have made it impossible for many to get back sooner. Most of all, though, they were prevented by our government’s flight caps.
Numerous news outlets have reported terrible stories of Australian families living in cars and vans in freezing places, or third world countries, and spending all their money on medical care when they fall sick in nations where they have no right to public health care. Children, including kids with disabilities, have been separated from parents for months on end. Kids and international students have had their education disrupted. People have missed out on jobs or lost jobs. Others ended leases and shipped their belongings to Australia and then had tickets cancelled. Thousands of Australians’ visas have expired and they’ve had to negotiate with foreign governments to get special permission to remain where they’ve overstayed. Many countries are not allowing foreign visitors, leaving Aussies with no options for onward travel.
What is not often reported is that a lot of permanent residents and citizens are stranded onshore, prevented from reuniting with family and partners overseas.
Australian insurers are not permitted to sell travel insurance during the travel ban, leaving many Australians uninsured in pandemic ravaged countries. By barring their return, the Australian government has increased the risk of COVID-19 infection among those stranded.
Australians able to get back have paid up to forty times the usual price of a one way economy ticket, with families paying tens of thousands of dollars. During an economic downturn, stranded Aussies are therefore pouring money into foreign airlines and foreign economies that could be better spent or invested here. On arrival they are charged up to $3,000 per person to quarantine in conditions the Coate Inquiry assessed as inhumane.
Furthermore, vulnerable Aussies have had their contact details leaked publicly by DFAT, and many have fallen victim to the predatory practices of airlines, travel agents and scam artists offering tickets for flights that don’t exist. Many have not been refunded for cancelled tickets, sometimes paid at premium prices. Qantas is among the airlines that have stalled on refunds.
- Coronavirus related travel disruptions left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas from March 2020.
- The Australian government imposed caps on flights entering Australia from July 2020, limiting passenger arrivals to 6,000 per week. January 2021 those were cut to 4,200. Yet up to 100,000 Aussies remain stranded with 37,000 registered with DFAT seeking urgent return.
- The government has issued 100k+ exit exemptions since March 2020, yet did not expand quarantine capacity or lift the caps to make sure those already stranded and those who exited for essential reasons could get back. Up to 25% of inbound seats & HQ places are taken by foreign visitors entering on temp visas.
- The caps need to be urgently lifted to at least 15,000 per week with corresponding quarantine capacity and a managed self-isolation system in place.
- That would bring Australia in line with Taiwan and New Zealand which are operating best practice hotel quarantine at three to four times the current capacity per capita as Australia. The caps should have been doubled not halved. Those countries have not stranded their residents.
- 1% of returnees test positive to COVID-19. At least 150k travellers have been processed through Australian inbound infection control. Any HQ leaks were related to poor procedures and were preventable. Only one leak resulted in a significant outbreak in Victoria in June July 2020.
- Australia’s flight caps were a disproportionate measure that should have been limited to the short term.
- The stranded Aussies crisis is one of the government’s own making, fuelled by incompetence, wilful negligence and the politics of fear mongering and paranoia.
- Australian governments have refused to acknowledge the numbers, including the number of quarantine spaces realistically required and the number of people the caps have severely disadvantaged. Those numbers were foreseeable but governments have failed to put forward any plans to remedy the situation.
- The caps are not evidence based and governments have failed to act on advice from their own experts.
- Australia’s state health departments have proven they have the infection control capability to deal with outbreaks. There is no reason Australia can’t expand its inbound infection control program to the standard and capacity of Taiwan and NZ.
- The stranded Aussies problem is guaranteed to get worse.
What to do
All of this was 100% preventable. Many of us have been calling for Australian state and federal governments to urgently expand their quarantine programs for months and to lift the flight caps. Now governments are using a pathetic excuse to halve quarantine capacity instead of doubling or tripling it to remedy the problem they created. Taiwan and New Zealand’s efficient and humane management of quarantine demonstrates that public health could have been protected without causing mass hardship to tens of thousands. I urge everyone to write to their local members and the relevant ministers, show them these numbers and demand they get their act together.