EXPLAINER

Will we see stranded Aussies at home for Christmas?

A passenger from a repatriation flight from Singapore makes her way to a bus to hotel quarantine after landing at Canberra airport. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
A passenger from a repatriation flight from Singapore makes her way to a bus to hotel quarantine after landing at Canberra airport. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he hoped to have "as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas" - though he has since conceded this may not be possible because the figures have changed.

When he said it, there were 24,000 Australians who had told embassies abroad they wanted to come home. That's now more than 12,000 higher.

The increase persuaded Mr Morrison to modify the back-by-Christmas promise (or aspiration or hope, depending on your interpretation).

"There's more people who want to come and we just need to get as many people home as quickly as we possibly can."

In a Senate committee hearing on Thursday, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was working out how many people would be able to come back on special flights.

"We're working through logistics at the moment to make sure all the arrangements for those flights are in place so we'll be able to ensure that passengers will be able to get to the flights," DFAT's deputy secretary Tony Sheehan said.

How many are out there?

DFAT said on Friday: "As at November 24, there were 36,875 Australians overseas registered with DFAT as seeking to return in 2020. We have said before the number registered would increase based on changed circumstances in which Australians found themselves over time, in an uncertain COVID-19-impacted world."

Just over 8000 of these were classed as "vulnerable", meaning they were in physical, mental or financial difficulty.

But as important as the numbers is the question of where people were.

The recent flight came from Singapore which is a big hub but because of the epidemic, stranded Australians in other countries can't get to the hub airports. Each country needs its own repatriation flights unless some way can be found for an aircraft to do hops, picking up passengers in a series of countries.

Some passengers were already trying to get back - but it's difficult. On Friday, a group of 30 Australians were stranded in San Francisco after their plane was deemed unfit to fly.

In a Facebook post, one Australian described the situation where "instead of putting us on a new or existing flight we are being forced to fend for ourselves, either waiting until next year for an available seat or paying thousands of dollars extra for a business class United ticket or a ticket with a different airline".

The government warned Australians abroad about the difficulties of getting home: "If you're overseas and wish to come home, be prepared for delays and disruptions to your travel. There are fewer international flights available due to travel restrictions, closed key transit hubs and limits on passenger arrivals into Australia. Travel regulations and restrictions are changing often and at short notice."

What are the hurdles?

The constraints are the limit on numbers coming in at the airport, the availability of aircraft and the availability of accommodation to quarantine incomers.

The federal government sets a cap on the number of passengers coming into Australian airports from overseas.

The caps were judged by the week and could be adjusted. With the cap set, airlines then sold tickets to keep within the limit.

The cap at the moment was around 6000 people allowed into the country a week. Clearly, if 36,000 exiled Australians were to get back in the four weeks to Christmas that cap would have to be raised to 9000 a week (and that's assuming the people who arrived in the two weeks before Christmas spend it in quarantine).

The government said: "The number of flights depends on the number of people states and territories can quarantine in a given week.

"In addition to continuing flights from London and New Delhi, the government has arranged further flights from Frankfurt, Paris and Singapore.

"Those who've been identified as vulnerable are given priority access to these flights."

Planes are available. After all, the airlines are desperate for business. Some may have been sent to great parking lots in the deserts of Australia and the United States to sit the epidemic out in dry conditions, but there was no suggestion a shortage of aircraft could hold up an air-lift.

So the big constraint is quarantine

Two of the outbreaks - the ones in Adelaide and Melbourne - came from hotels being used to quarantine arrivals (so-called "medi-hotels") so state and territory governments were extremely wary of allowing large numbers of incomers to be deposited in hotels within their capital cities.

One solution which may be developed had already been tried.

A former workers' camp near Darwin was opened as a quarantine centre. The snag was that inmates of the Howard Springs facility then held a "quarantine rave" and shared the video on social media.

The ravers were not wearing the mandated face-masks. "Quarantine is quarantine. It's not a holiday," one Northern Territory doctor said.

One suggestion was to quarantine people off-shore.

"I would open up Christmas Island, Woomera, RAAF Yearmonth, and other potential sites, manned by ADF personnel," Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia, told this paper.

He thought all returnees should then be tested before boarding and on arrival. "Plenty of people would say this is too expensive or logistically difficult, but the cost of another lockdown would far outweigh the cost of this approach," he said. "I know how it could be done, but the state and federal governments would not be interested."

So will it happen?

The logistics of getting 36,875 Australians scattered all over the globe back in time for Christmas are probably insurmountable.

But the government is under pressure, particularly when stranded and distraught Australians take to social media and then the video gets replayed on the nightly news.

It has promised more flights and more quarantine - and so, more Australians back in Australia in only four weeks' time.

But the full 36,875 more seems like a tall order.

This story Will we see stranded Aussies at home for Christmas? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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