Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Drive

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: COVID-19, travel restrictions, charter flights for stranded Australians.
25 March 2020

Patricia Karvelas: Marise Payne is our Foreign Minister and she joins us tonight. Welcome to the program.

Minister Payne: Good afternoon, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Let’s start with the ban on overseas travel. Who does this apply to? Is it just citizens or anyone currently in Australia?

Minister Payne: It applies to all Australian citizens and permanent residents, who will be prohibited for travel out of Australia, unless exempted. It is a ban that has come into place today, as of 1200 hours. So, that is now under the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act and our Human Biosecurity Emergency Provisions in place. Now, there are some exemptions. Those exempted include persons who are ordinarily a resident in a country other than Australia; whose travel is associated with essential work at offshore facilities; who are engaged in the day-to-day conduct of outbound and inbound freight; those who are traveling on official government business and members of the ADF; of course, airline and maritime crew and the associated safety workers in those businesses.

And then there’s other guidance for airlines, which we’ve provided. And I would have to say, Patricia, of course there will be certain exemptions or discretion that the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force may need to exercise, and I would include as examples in that those people who might be travelling to receive urgent medical treatment outside of Australia, who are traveling on compassionate or humanitarian grounds — those sorts of things as well. And also, if I may say, some of our humanitarian and aid workers, particularly from the Pacific region.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so if there was, for instance … There’s a big diaspora of migrant communities here. If for instance, somebody in another country was to die or become ill, would the Government allow you to go visit that person? I mean, I have family in Greece for instance. Is that the sort of thing that would be allowed?

Minister Payne: So, they will be decisions made at the discretion of the Australian Border Force Commissioner, but we’re very aware that family life at the moment is very important to people, and very conscious of that, so I’m sure in compassionate terms urgent, unavoidable personal business of that nature is the sort of things that would be considered.

Patricia Karvelas: So what should someone planning to travel, who thinks they meet the criteria for an exemption, actually do?

Minister Payne: Well, when they need to book their tickets, they need to apply for an exemption. I’m in fact dealing with one of those for a colleague at the moment. The exemptions are provided for airlines, and we’ll make those public during — as airlines are selling tickets.

Patricia Karvelas: An Australian travel company has been working with DFAT to get around 100 Australians out of Peru on a charter flight. Has the flight left?

Minister Payne: No, it hasn't, and Peru is a very difficult case in point, and I do understand how anxious it is for families and for individuals who are in different parts of Peru. That is one of the challenges. Peru has imposed very strict internal movement regulations and also very strict requirements on air travel, including reducing air travel to one military airport only, and only four flights a day. So, we're working very closely with an Australian travel company called Chimu to support its planned charter from Lima, which is scheduled to depart on Friday of this week. We have been working closely with them, offering them quite generous assurances to enable that flight to proceed, and I'm just awaiting confirmation of Chimu’s agreement to the Government's offer. There are many, many more Australians in Peru than will be able to take this first flight, so this is an ongoing task for government, with Chimu, and with other agencies, where we can identify options for further flights.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you know roughly how many Australians are trapped in other countries around the world that can't get out because these borders have been closed or flights have even just stopped?

Minister Payne: It's fair to say, Patricia, that that literally is changing every day. I was advised, very late last night, of changes in South Africa, for example, where flights will cease as of tomorrow. There are a number of Australians in South Africa who were scheduled to fly on airlines later this week — so beyond that close-off point. We are now working closely with our post in Pretoria to try to identify some options to support those Australians to return.

This is an unprecedented scale of global interruption and no matter where you look, it is growing, not diminishing. So it's a big task. It's one which has seen something like 18,500 calls since the 13th of March into our consular emergency call centre. That is a very significant change, as you can imagine, and it's a big load but we are working through it.

Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to someone just this week from- an Australian, of course, who's stuck in Ecuador who said they can't get out. Around 70 Aussies are all talking to each other on WhatsApp. The borders are all closed. No flights. What help can be provided to them?

Marise Payne: That is one of the countries which we are concerned about. I think there is, in fact, a significantly larger number than 70, I was advised today, who are endeavouring to determine ways to return to Australia. That is a matter which we are engaging on with businesses like Chimu Travel as well, and others, as to what might be possible. We don't have a post, for example, that enables us to provide direct support, but we are working closely with anyone who has the capacity to support, where the Australian Government can assist with that.

Patricia Karvelas: The Government has ruled out more Wuhan-style evacuation flights. What options does that leave people trying to get home?

Marise Payne: Well, they have been — those options have been diminishing, you're quite right, and that's why some time ago now, indeed on the 13 March, we indicated, for the first time in Australia's history of issuing travel advice, that you should reconsider your need to travel. On the 17 March, we indicated that if you wish to return to Australia, you should do so as soon as possible. And of course, the next day, we indicated that our advice was do not travel. We have taken this very seriously and as matters have become more complex, we have issued that advice.

So where there are any remaining commercial flights, we have said that even if it's not your first preference, you are well advised to make those bookings and take those flights if you possibly can. If you cannot, then in countries like those we've discussed this afternoon and a couple of others, we are looking at what we can do to assist Australians. We made a decision last night to consider, on a case-by-case basis, supporting our airlines to operate non-scheduled services to those less central locations to bring Australians home. We'll do that where it's feasible to do so, where other commercial options have been exhausted, and most importantly, where local authorities will permit such flights. So each of these, literally country by country, literally city by city, has to be negotiated bilaterally as well.

Patricia Karvelas: Are all Australia's embassies and consulates around the world still operating, and what kind of assistance can they provide?

Marise Payne: They are operating within the bounds of what they are allowed to do by local authorities. So where local authorities have, for example, asked offices to be closed for the purposes of maximising social distancing and minimising transmission and spread of infection, then sometimes, the embassy itself or the post itself may not be physically open but the officials are most certainly communicating through email, through social media, as much as they can to send out messaging to Australians in those countries about local conditions, and requirements, and changes in rules and regulations, changes in travel arrangements and so on. In our larger posts, of course, there is a very significant consular load and that is the case right around the world at the moment.

Patricia Karvelas: We're hearing reports that seats on economy flights out of some of these cities are going for thousands of dollars. Can the Government help with the cost? Is that something that you would consider?

Marise Payne: Well, we have firstly said to airlines and to travel companies that we expect them to deal appropriately with customers at a very, very difficult time like the one we are experiencing now. That is our first and foremost response in relation to perhaps some efforts at gouging, which we totally reject. We have also indicated to our travel insurers that, where possible, they should endeavour to be generous, if you like, in their application of their policies as well. We will have to consider, I think, what representations Australians make to us. At the moment though, using commercial flights is definitely an approach we encourage Australians to take where it is possible.

Patricia Karvelas: And that's Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister.

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