Australia caps number of returnees, imposes quarantine charges

People queueing in their vehicles for Covid-19 testing at a hotel in Sydney. The federal government has cut the weekly number of Australians who can return from overseas from about 7,000 to 4,000.
People queueing in their vehicles for Covid-19 testing at a hotel in Sydney. The federal government has cut the weekly number of Australians who can return from overseas from about 7,000 to 4,000. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Australia has imposed strict limits on the number of expatriates who can return home and will charge them for their 14 days in quarantine, but the measures have been criticised as denying the basic rights of the nation's citizens.

With hundreds of thousands of Australians living overseas, the federal government has cut weekly arrivals of returnees from about 7,000 to 4,000. The move follows concerns that states and territories may be unable to accommodate and monitor all arrivals in quarantine. In the month to last week, about 28,000 Australians returned from abroad, mostly through the Sydney airport.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the reduced flow of international arrivals was necessary to ensure the authorities could conduct adequate testing and tracing. The new limits began on Monday.

States and territories have also begun charging arrivals for their stays at quarantine hotels.

New South Wales (NSW) state, the main point of entry for returning citizens, permanent residents and their families, has announced it will charge A$3,000 (S$2,930) for an adult, A$1,000 for an additional adult and A$500 per child aged three and over. The charges, which cover food and accommodation, will begin from Saturday.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state has spent more than A$65 million on quarantine for about 35,000 returning citizens since quarantine measures began on March 29.

"Australian residents have been given plenty of time to return home - and we feel it is only fair that they cover some of the costs of their hotel accommodation," she said in a statement.

Other states, such as South Australia, have introduced similar charges. Western Australia is charging A$2,520 for an adult, A$3,360 for two adults, and A$5,040 for a family of four. The charges extend to domestic travellers who lack a place to self-isolate.

Australia had largely suppressed the Covid-19 outbreak until a recent wave of cases linked to hotels housing international travellers in Melbourne. The outbreak prompted Australia's second-largest city to go back into lockdown for six weeks.

As of yesterday , Australia had recorded 10,495 cases of Covid-19 and 111 deaths. Victoria state yesterday recorded 238 of the country's 259 new cases. The remainder were in NSW and Western Australia.

The Melbourne outbreak has led to several new cases in Sydney and prompted states to adopt tighter restrictions, including limiting travellers from Victoria and Sydney.

Victoria yesterday announced it will require police to wear masks at stations after 57 officers were forced to isolate after coming into contact with two colleagues who had the coronavirus.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said the state may introduce tougher restrictions if people defy the current lockdown measures.

"(If) people do not do the right thing, then we will have to move to additional restrictions being put in place and potentially prolong... these restrictions," he told reporters.

NSW this week imposed new rules on pubs following an outbreak centred on a pub in south-west Sydney. Ms Berejiklian signalled yesterday that additional restrictions for high-risk activities may be introduced to suppress further outbreaks.

Meanwhile, the crackdown on Australians abroad has sparked a backlash, with expatriates saying they are not a "danger to society" and often have good reasons for not having yet returned.

Ms Amy Knibbs, an Australian lawyer who recently returned to Sydney from New York, is currently in a quarantine hotel, and said the decision to charge for quarantine was "cruel" and would prevent some expatriates from returning.

She said it was not easy for all Australians abroad to quickly pack up their lives and move, especially when some may have family members abroad or may be forced to give up the visas that allow them to live in their adopted county.

"While some may be well-paid financiers in Dubai or Singapore, others are barely making a living teaching English in Cambodia or working in human rights and development in Kenya," she wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"In a wealthy country like Australia, public health should be paid for by the public dime, not lumped on those who just happened to be living overseas at the wrong time."

Another expatriate, Mr James Mort, who lives in London, wrote in the Herald on Sunday that returning citizens pose no public health threat if quarantining and testing are well managed.

"The ability for citizens to return to their country is a fundamental human right," he wrote.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2020, with the headline Australia caps number of returnees, imposes quarantine charges. Subscribe