Interview with Ross Stevenson and Russel Howcroft, 3AW Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Chartered Qantas flights returning Australians.

Ross Stevenson: Well, there are some Australians who are going to return home on specially chartered Qantas flights after being stranded overseas for months due to COVID-19. The first of eight flights has collected passengers from London and will land in Darwin today.

Marise Payne is the Foreign Minister. Minister, good morning. Thank you for your time.

Marise Payne: Good morning, gentlemen.

Ross Stevenson: Are these people who got stranded overseas whilst on holidays or people who were working overseas who wanted to return home?

Marise Payne: There's actually a vast range of personal circumstances represented amongst many Australians who are still overseas. And as you know, we have been encouraging Australians to return since March. This cohort that we are working closely with on these facilitated flights are what we would describe as vulnerable Australians for a range of reasons. It may be their financial circumstances, their medical circumstances, their family circumstances and, as you say, their work circumstances. But in all cases, we are working closely and endeavouring to bring these flights through in the coming weeks.

Ross Stevenson: So they're all – did they all have to get from wherever they were in the world to London in order to get back or were they all in London anyway?

Marise Payne: The bulk of the current set of people returning from London were in the UK. We are also facilitating flights in the coming weeks from New Delhi and from Johannesburg. They are three key areas, at this point in time, where we have a cohort of vulnerable Australians where we can provide this flight support. New Delhi in particular, is important. There have not been any commercial flights out of India since March – a number of facilitated flights but no commercial flights. So, we're identifying the most vulnerable groups and trying to work with them.

Russel Howcroft: So, Minister, what percentage of Australians wanting to be back, say, by Christmas, do you think you'll be able to get here?

Marise Payne: Our focus is on this 4000 or so most vulnerable that have identified themselves with my department in September. But we know that there are many, many more Australians overseas. We are also working with the commercial airlines to make sure that we are filling every possible seat and they are filling every possible seat on commercial flights which are coming into Australia.

But the caps are very limited in that context. Our caps currently allow 5600 passengers a week, and that is a very small number. And of course, as you both know well, Melbourne Airport’s not open currently at all for international flights.

Ross Stevenson: I was going to say, Minister, there’s a former Australian prime minister who famously said always back self-interest. You know, it’s trying. None of these people are flying into Melbourne, are they?

Marise Payne: No, no. They're not able to do that. So we are relying heavily on New South Wales, which has been taking very much the lion's share of returning Australians. But other jurisdictions in the last couple of weeks have also increased the numbers that they have been able to take. There's no question. And again, I say that conscious that I'm speaking to 3AW, that there's no question that managing quarantine for large numbers of people is complex. I’m very aware of that.

Russel Howcroft: But Minister, does the supply of beds in Darwin determine how many people can get on planes to land in Darwin?

Marise Payne: Yes, it does. And so the Darwin process, the Howard Springs process, will enable us to bring 5000 further Australians back through that process over the next few months. That's about 500 people at a time on a rolling fortnightly basis. And so that's a very important contribution to those numbers. The other thing, which is also contributing to an increase in the numbers that can come into Australia through this process, is New Zealanders not having to quarantine, which also frees up several hundred quarantine places.

Ross Stevenson: Quick question, Minister: are they COVID tested before they get on the plane?

Marise Payne: Yes, there are PCR tests being facilitated by Qantas themselves through their affiliated test centres, and pre-departure tests are conditions for boarding.

Ross Stevenson: Good on you. Minister, thank you very much for your time.

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