Interview with David Koch - Channel 7 Sunrise

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australians in remote places and on cruise ships abroad.

David Koch: Hundreds of Australians who were stranded in Nepal have been taken to a Brisbane hotel after arriving on an emergency flight. The Australians went straight into isolation while 28 Kiwis on board were flown to New Zealand. But while they're all back home, around 500 Aussies remain stranded on nine overseas cruise ships as coronavirus shuts down global travel.

Fears are especially growing over an outbreak on the Greg Mortimer ship off the coast of Uruguay. One person has tested positive, while nine others have symptoms.

Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, joins me now. Minister, thanks for your time.

Marise Payne: Good morning.

David Koch: There are nearly a hundred Australians on board this ship. Does the government have plans to rescue them as well?

Marise Payne: David, I spoke yesterday morning to the Uruguayan Foreign Minister about the Aurora Greg Mortimer. The Uruguayans have obviously been very, very helpful in terms of supporting Australians to leave South America. Earlier this week, we are able to work with the cruise company, the Ocean Atlantic — to make sure that those passengers were able to take a Chimu Adventures organised flight supported by the Commonwealth Government to return to Australia. So, it is important that we do work closely with the governments in these countries and that's what we're doing for the Aurora Greg Mortimer as well.

David Koch: Okay. Do you feel a sense of frustration? Because I know the Greg Mortimer cruise left on the 15th of March, that was around the time the advice was ‘don't travel overseas’. When do you say to people, hey, you ignored our advice — you look after yourself coming home?

Marise Payne: Well David, we’ve worked very hard to support as many Australians as we can in what are unprecedented times. But we did issue very clear travel advice, as you say, for good reason.

David Koch: Yep, absolutely. And also concerns for the Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships where four people have died. Do we know yet if the US government is going to let those ships dock in Florida? And what that means for the Aussies on board those?

Marise Payne: David, I'm so pleased to be able to say that the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, are both going to be able to dock in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. We are going to be able to move those Australian passengers through a sanitary corridor, if you like, to flights — which Holland America Lines is supporting and working with us on. Flights will go to the West Coast of the United States, and then from the West Coast of the US back to Australia. I know that will be an enormous relief for the passengers and for their very worried families here.

David Koch: Yeah, absolutely, and this is a live shot of one of those ships — the Zaandam — actually docking in Florida as we speak. So they're pretty close to getting off and docking there. This must be a nightmare for Foreign Affairs to save all these Aussies — doing a great job.

Marise Payne: Thank you.

David Koch: Let's turn to New South Wales. These 8 crew ships that keep chugging along the New South Wales coast, ignoring orders to leave — where do you stand there? You’ve got a duty of care to people who are sick, I suppose, but how can we just get rid of them and say go back to your home port?

Marise Payne: We do have that responsibility, David, and we’ve been very clear that where members of the crew do need health support they will be provided with that. A number have been evacuated, including actually two pregnant women from the Ruby Princess earlier this week. They are not easy tasks, they’re complex as well — so we are doing that. But we are absolutely encouraging, through the process of providing health checks to ensure the health of the crews, that they should return to their port bases and that they should leave Australian waters. The Australian Border Force, the Department of Home Affairs are directly negotiating with the cruise companies in relation to that.

David Koch: Because that Ruby Princess has been a nightmare for us, hasn’t it? Will you bring in the Navy to get rid of them because a lot of them are saying, hey, because we are based in Australia for summer this is our home port. That doesn't wash, does it?

Marise Payne: Well I think the most important thing that we can do is to negotiate with them constructively. It’s not a defence or military operation, it's about working with their commercial operators — the cruise lines — to make sure that once health is assured in a way that we are endeavouring to do and that’s a big job in and of itself — there are about 8000 crew members across the multiple vessels to be checked but once assured they will be able to leave Australian waters.

David Koch: Okay. We’re ticking off a lot here on our list, the next one is those Aussies stuck in Peru and India as well after both of those countries locked their borders. How long could they be stranded for?

Marise Payne: Well we were very pleased to support one flight back from Peru this week, organised by Chimu Adventures and supported by the Australian Government, and that has led to several hundred Australians coming back. There’s still a group in Lima, a group in Cusco, and about 100 Australians in quite remote and isolated parts of Peru. Our embassy on the ground is working very hard to bring them to central locations and we are working directly with Qantas to identify flights that may be able to bring them home. I hope to be able to have some news between Qantas and my department that we’ll be able to make public in the coming days.

This is, again, a complex operation. As you say, Peru is locked down. Every single flight has to receive the explicit permission of the government and has to go out of a military airport. It's not somewhere that Qantas flies normally, so I am very grateful for their engagement. But it's a big job. We’re communicating with Australians on the ground as much as we can, and also importantly, encouraging them to obey the laws which are imposed in Peru and similar countries at the moment.

David Koch: Yeah. Well us Aussies are great travellers, but it can be pretty frustrating at times like this. Leave you to it, Foreign Minister. Thank you for joining us.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, David.

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