Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB

  • Transcript
Subjects: Australians overseas; 14-day quarantine for Australian cabin crew
08 April 2020

Deborah Knight:
Now, there are many Aussies still stranded overseas. A lot of them can't get home because flights have been cancelled and they're in all sorts of places - major cities, remote countries and there are more than 250 of them on cruise ships as well. The Government is now having to subsidise some flights and they're also chartering private planes.

And then there's the issue of cabin crew. Aussie flight crew are exempt from the 14-day quarantine after arriving in the country. Today though, we've seen 11 Qantas cabin crew testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Australia on a flight from Chile last month. So should this be changed?

Well on the line is Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Minister, thanks for jumping on.

Marise Payne:
Pleasure, Deb. And thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about some of these really important issues.

Deborah Knight:
So tell us about the cabin crew first up, because health officials - some of them have been saying this should be an across-the-board ruling that the cabin crew, Qantas flight crew, they shouldn't be exempt, they should have that 14-day quarantine period enforced. Is that likely to occur?

Marise Payne:
Well Deb, there is a set of rules about air crew and they are covered by the use of appropriate personal protective equipment during journeys – whether or not symptoms are displayed by the cabin crew and those sorts of issues.

One of the reasons that these are essential is to ensure that we can actually keep air routes open - airlines flying to and from Australia. Our international flights are vital to bringing the Australians home that you've just spoken about and also to ensure that we are still able to move exports and take in imports through air freight. It's critical to our economy. It's critical to our supply chains, the sorts of things that people still want to see in the stores.

Deborah Knight:
There are obviously much fewer flights happening. So we do have more flight crew available to do those jobs and we've seen 11 Qantas crew members operating this flight from Chile who have tested positive - they didn't have to go into quarantine. That's a risk, isn't it?

Marise Payne:
Well, I think that the airlines are obviously considering this very seriously and, to be honest, we are asking a great deal of the airlines at the moment. I know that internationally there are airlines that have been hit very badly including losing, through coronavirus fatalities, senior members of their team.

So the airlines are acutely aware of the importance of this and although obviously, as Foreign Minister, I don't deal with this directly, I understand our health experts are constantly monitoring this. And if they can recommend further measures, for instance personal protective equipment, they will. Qantas has also introduced, from Australia's perspective, enhanced measures to further protect their crews while they're overseas including self-isolating in their own hotel rooms.

So that is important. They are critical steps to be taking at this stage of the spread of the virus and ones which I would support.

Deborah Knight:
What's happening with the Aussies who are still stranded overseas? I understand that Qantas and Virgin will both be resuming international services to bring some of them home.

Marise Payne:
Yes. We announced with the Minister for Transport, the Deputy Prime Minister, some key hubs particularly for Qantas in the last week - London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland. Virgin are also supporting us where they are able to. We still have some critical locations that we are endeavouring to return Australians from. Peru is one case in point. There will be a flight from Peru tomorrow, I'm very pleased to say, out of Lima, Cusco and Iquitos. They are going to bring passengers then from Santiago to Melbourne.

It's an enormous challenge actually, moving around Peru at the moment, so it is important that we can pick up passengers from those other locations. And our Embassy has been working with Australians who are in more remote places in Peru - backpacker hostels, things like that - to actually come to some of these cities so that they are able to participate in those flights.

Deborah Knight:
And there are 500 Aussies in Cambodia as well. Will there be charter flights or commercial flights? How will they be brought home?

Marise Payne:
We've been able to - via social media and our excellent Ambassador in Cambodia, Pablo Kang - to alert Australians that we are in final negotiations, which have been driven by the Embassy there, for a special commercial flight from Phnom Penh to Australia. That is a very good initiative. It's great to have had a good response from Australians who have registered. I think that can be finalised today. There would be 210 or so Australians allocated seats on that plane. It will return on the weekend, we believe, and I'm very pleased that the embassy has been able to progress that.

Deborah Knight:
Yeah, that is good news. We're also hearing, Minister, reports that some of the Aussies who are stranded and who are waiting to come home – locals are turning on them, and giving them abuse, and some of them are feeling quite unsafe. What sort of situation are they in?

Marise Payne:
Well, I'd be very concerned if members of the public anywhere in the world, blame visitors to their countries for COVID-19. It's not going to help to solve this international crisis. I think the Prime Minister has said this is not a virus that's defined by nationality, it attacks all people equally, and we have definitely seen that in recent weeks, haven't we?

So, I would encourage Australians who are overseas to be very careful. To follow the rules of the countries in which they find themselves which, by the way, I would say are also subject to quite constant change depending on the restrictions that are in place. And I would also say to them that our embassies, our high commissions, our consulates are there to help Australians overseas to stay safe. It's their role to also provide advice on those local conditions and circumstances.

Deborah Knight:
What about the Australians on the cruise ships overseas? The Greg Mortimer in particular. There are over 200 people on board and 60 per cent of people on the ship have now tested positive to coronavirus. I'm seeing reports that some of those on that cruise who are positive will not be able to get on flights home. Will that apply to the Australians?

Marise Payne:
Deb, the Greg Mortimer is a very difficult situation. I've been working with my ministerial colleague - the Foreign Minister in Uruguay, Minister Talvi - on this particular matter and Aurora has also been working very hard to find a solution for their passengers. So we have, between Australia and Uruguay, agreed to establish what's known as a reinforced sanitary corridor that will allow for the Australian passengers to disembark direct to a charter aircraft for return to Australia.

The vessel is dealing with a high infection rate and we have already had Australians, and members of the crew, taken off the vessel who are hospitalised in Montevideo. So we are working very closely to try to finalise this charter flight as soon as possible and to ensure that the maximum number of Australians who are on that vessel are able to fly. I would hope that is as close to all of them as possible, notwithstanding that we do have some in the hospital and they, of course, have spouses who have been with them on their travel. Those sorts of things will have to be taken into account.

But for us, the health, the welfare procedures and clearances that we are working through with the Uruguay Government are very important in making sure that we support Aurora to get them home.

Deborah Knight:
Yeah. Gee, it's a challenge isn't it, with all the Aussies all around the globe…

Marise Payne:
Indeed.

Deborah Knight:
They say that we do like to travel and it's played out in the numbers of Aussies who are still overseas, wanting to get back to their shores. But well done on the efforts on getting them home safely.

Marise Payne:
Thanks Deb. Our aim has absolutely been to get Australians home in a way that's safe for them and also safe for Australians in Australia. We're very conscious of both of those imperatives.

Deborah Knight:
Alright. Thanks for jumping on the line. Foreign Minister there, Marise Payne.

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