Interview with Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon Channel 9 Today

Subjects: Australians wanting to return from abroad
26 March 2020

Allison Langdon:
Well, time is running out for Australians trying to get home from overseas, with all major airlines grounding planes at the end of March, which is in five days.

Karl Stefanovic:
It's sparked a mad scramble, hasn't it, for the few remaining tickets, with some paying tens of thousands of dollars. Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne joins us now.

Minister, thank you for your time again today. I know that DFAT was inundated yesterday, literally thousands and thousands of calls. Have you got a handle on just how many Australians are currently stranded and want to get home?

Marise Payne:
Well we know there are certain hotspots which are much more difficult to leave from than others. But as I've said before, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Australians overseas at any one time. And although we did impose and issue quite clear travel advice on the 13th of March and then again on the 17th and the 18th, culminating in “do not travel overseas,” there were still many people who were around the world. So we're very focused on the most difficult areas, on working with partners who can assist us in returning Australians.

Allison Langdon:
So, I mean, do you think this then comes down to personal responsibility? Because I know a lot of people overseas are now asking you to try and get them home. Is there anything that you can do? Because I know you've said rescue charter flights like what we saw in Wuhan are not an option.

Marise Payne:
In some places, of course, it's much more difficult to leave as I've said. And I think a good case in point is Peru. At the moment, we are working very closely with an Australian business called Chimu, in providing them assurances from Government, so that they can assist Australians to leave. That is, there are talks that are underway. There are a number of other areas where I'm also concerned, Nepal - Kathmandu in particular - South Africa has recently closed its flights down too. So they're discussions that we're having with international airlines and with travel businesses like Chimu in Peru in particular.

Karl Stefanovic:
Obviously, you're working behind the scenes and trying to achieve some goals there. None of that can be easy.

Marise Payne:
Well it's very much a case-by-case proposition, because there are so many locations in the conversation, as it were, and also so many cruise ships as well, which is enormously onerous for my team. There have been – as you said, Karl - very many calls recently - over 18,500 since the 13th of March. DFAT is very focused on this, not just in Canberra and Australia, let me assure people, but all over the world in our posts in particular.

Karl Stefanovic:
Just on cruise ships, we've featured a number of people on this program who are saying, Australian Government get me out of here. You can't possibly do that for everyone. Also, where does it fall upon these cruise ships, the responsibility to get people, to help people and assist people in getting home?

Marise Payne:
Well, there are over 3,000 Australians on more than 30 cruise ships around the world at the moment. So it is a very large number and they are scattered, as you might expect, to the four winds. The cruise lines are being very, very constructive in the approach that they are taking. A lot of them are assisting their passengers by organising charters. That's a very important step. We want to make sure that those Australians are able to return. We are working directly with them. In so many ports - I couldn't begin to count - but literally from South America, to Europe, to the United States, and further afield.

Allison Langdon:
I mean, the reality is there's going to be a lot of Australians stuck overseas when we are in lockdown. Is there anything, for who knows how long, what will we be able to do from here to help them if they are stuck in a country like Peru and can't get out?

Marise Payne:
Well we're being very clear in the travel advice that we are providing. We're asking our ambassadors, our high commissioners, to use all the tools available to them in terms of social media, direct email communication, phone, text and so on, to make sure that they're providing the support to Australians that they can. We, of course though, in all of the countries in which we work, are constrained by the regulations and the restrictions that are placed on operations by the host country. So, for example, in Peru it is very difficult at the moment, there are very strict internal restrictions about gatherings, about movement, about the openings of offices. So that is something which constrains us, but nevertheless we use all of those tools, all of those platforms, to try to communicate with Australians who may be in that country.

Allison Langdon:
And you know what else is really tough here? Because we know the majority of cases are coming in from overseas. And while we all want to see every Australian returned safely, it's the issue when they get here. Because they're not screened at the airport, they're free to jump on public transport before they have to isolate at home for two weeks. I mean, it's also the reason why this virus is spreading so quickly.

Marise Payne:
Well, we do know that the majority of cases in Australia are related to people who have returned from overseas, that's correct. So we are being very clear about the requirements for self-isolation. You will have seen the NSW Police Commissioner - Commissioner Fuller – out yesterday, indicating the approach that his teams will be taking in relation to self-isolation. It is absolutely imperative that Australians follow the rules around self-isolation, around hygiene, around social distancing. They are all there, they are all public, they are all made available for Australians to see. It's absolutely imperative that we follow those rules.

Karl Stefanovic:
The problem is, Minister, and you would know this only too well, there are gaps where the transmission is possible and people get off planes, and at customs there's one area, then when they go into a taxi or an Uber or public transport, there is the ability for transmission to happen. Is it worth having or testing temperatures when people get off planes? Is it worth taking those extra measures to make sure the spread is limited?

Marise Payne:
So we're very conscious of where people are coming from. You know that we imposed travel restrictions in relation to a number of countries, some time ago now, in relation to mainland China, in relation to Iran, in relation to northern Italy. So travellers from areas or people who have been in those areas in recent times, they are obviously flagged, we're obviously aware of that. And then we are also very careful through the Australian Border Force, and particularly through the health advice, that is absolutely the premise upon which we are approaching our response, the health advice. Overwhelmingly, where people are coming from countries where there are vulnerabilities, they are questioned, they are asked to complete tests, they are asked to respond in the way that the Chief Medical Officer and the Australian Border Force have determined is the most appropriate.

Karl Stefanovic:
Minister, you have an awful lot on your plate at the moment, and DFAT staff around the world have an awful lot on their plate, is everyone holding up alright?

Marise Payne:
My team is resilient, we are all resilient Australians, but I know there is an enormous load on all of us. But it's about Australians pulling together and I really appreciate the support we're getting from the Australian community as well.

Karl Stefanovic:
Foreign Minister, thank you.

Marise Payne:
Thank you.

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