Interview with Sabra Lane, RN Canberra, AM

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Working to return Australians from Peru and cruise ships.
01 April 2020

Sabra Lane: The federal government is negotiating with Qantas about organising special flights to South America to rescue stranded Australians. Some countries shut their borders and imposed curfews with little to no warning, making it extremely difficult for some ex-pats to scramble to larger cities to plot their return. There are also 10 cruise ships with more than 600 Australians on board, desperate to return home. The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne, I spoke with her earlier.

Sabra Lane: Minister, good morning. Let's look at the cases that you're dealing with. There is a planned flight from Uruguay tomorrow taking passengers from the Ocean Atlantic, but passengers on another boat, the Greg Mortimer, are being told they'll have to wait 14 days until after the last person's experienced fever. They could be stuck there for some time.

Marise Payne: The Greg Mortimer has had a number of issues on board. We've had a gentleman in his late 60s taken to shore in Montevideo yesterday, I think, to go into isolation. And it is very difficult for those who have had flu-like symptoms given concerns internationally, not just in South America obviously but internationally, about the impact of coronavirus. We've been working closely with authorities to ensure that we are able to support those passengers when they are allowed to leave the ship.

But like in Australia, there are different quarantine restrictions being imposed around the world, different requirements for isolation. I understand our ambassador in Buenos Aires is in contact with the passengers and supporting them through that information.

But there's no denying that this is a very difficult situation and, of course, Australians overseas have to comply with the international laws that are imposed on the countries in which they find themselves. That doesn't make it any easier.

Sabra Lane: A charter flight is also- has arrived from Peru but the government, I understand, is planning another. There are hundreds of Australians spread out across that country, unable to move easily because of the curfew. How will you retrieve all of those people and get them home in an affordable way?

Marise Payne: We will support as many Australians as we can to come home. As I've said to you and to others before, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians at any time overseas and there are still a very large number of Australians overseas. But in Peru, since we were able to support the Chimu flight and provide it with the government's assurances to enable it to go ahead, we are continuing to work with Qantas on further flights to assist Australians who are still there, and also just trying to facilitate internal travel for Australians who are in more remote and isolated parts of Peru to come to the city centres — to come into Lima, to Cusco, so that they are able to access those flights. I expect to have more information from my department, from Qantas, on those in the coming days.

Sabra Lane: Does the curfew mean that some Australians just might have to ride it out? Or are you hopeful that you will get everyone out?

Marise Payne: The internal restrictions are going to mean it’s very difficult to- for people, some people, to move around but we are working with local authorities to seek travel permissions and movement permissions, working with local agencies to facilitate transport to endeavour to do that. But there are some parts of Peru which are obviously very isolated and we will — we will do as much as we possibly can.

But I have said, the Prime Minister has said, from the very beginning of this crisis when we began to encourage Australians to reconsider their need to travel, to return to Australia, it will not be possible to bring everybody home — and of course not everybody wants to come home. Many are prepared to stay in places they’ve lived for a long time. But in very, very remote areas it is certainly difficult.

Sabra Lane: There are two cruise ships heading out to Florida — the Zaandam and the Rotterdam — with a substantial number of Australians on board but the Florida authorities have said that they won't allow passengers with COVID-19 to be dumped there. How are you dealing with that?

Marise Payne: Yes, the Zaandam and the Rotterdam are both very large vessels. There's been an extraordinary transfer of passengers at sea between those vessels and, in some cases, very much older passengers. We're working with officials there to seek support for them to be allowed to disembark and to take flights home. That includes local government officials and, of course, making representations direct to US authorities — we're making those representations both here in Australia and in the United States.

Again, we understand that the Centres for Disease Control will monitor the signs of illness and they certainly will have a requirement about meeting certain levels of health status before people are allowed to travel. Again, the complexities of different countries rules and requirements is something that we are managing on virtually an hourly basis.

Sabra Lane: Is there a touch of irony here? Australia is wanting to get Australians off cruise ships in foreign waters yet here, in Australia, New South Wales Police has given the Ruby Princess orders to move on, and so too, the WA government wants ships out of Australian waters. Why should the government expect co-operation when state governments here are taking a tough line?

Marise Payne: Well, this is a very difficult balancing process. We have to protect Australians. We have to protect and support Australians overseas as well and get them home in a way that is safe for them and safe for Australians here. In terms of the Ruby Princess, the Australian Border Force is working closely with the New South Wales Government in relation to the crew on the Ruby Princess. But there has been a biosecurity determination imposed, which says any vessel which departed from an international port after mid-March is not permitted into an Australian port without express permission.

I understand that some, some crew members from the Ruby Princess who are unwell have, of course, been transferred to health facilities in the past couple of days. There were a number of pregnant women on the Ruby Princess who had also been transferred. But this is a process which we are going through with the cruise ship companies, through the Australian Border Force, the Department of Home Affairs, to determine what is possible.

The ship movements in Western Australia — again, a large number of unwell passengers who are currently receiving treatment in Western Australian hospitals and then a very much larger cohort again of passengers who were transferred on flights, Lufthansa flights, back to Germany.

Every single case is different, Sabra, and we are handling them one at a time but also very conscious of what we need to do to protect Australians.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

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