By Roxanne Fitzgerald
Federal Labor MP Luke Gosling has said the Morrison Government needs to lift the cap on Australians returning home from overseas, suggesting it look to the Northern Territory, while the NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles has said while the NT is open to international arrivals, it has not told the Federal Government it will take returnees.
About 25,000 Australians have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to come home from overseas, according to figures reported by the ABC. But there was no breakdown by state or territory.
Under the Federal Government’s cap, which is in place until October 24, 4,000 people can return from overseas each week; this is broken down to 2,450 people a week in Sydney, 500 in Adelaide and Brisbane, 525 in Perth, none in Hobart and Melbourne, and passenger limits on each flight are to be discussed with the ACT and NT governments on a case-by-case basis.
In February, more than 260 Australians evacuated from Wuhan were quarantined in the Howard Springs camp for 14 days, followed by 164 passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Joining Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally in advocating for the safe repatriation of Australians, Mr Gosling said the NT is equipped to take in more international arrivals.
“They want to come home and they cannot. They cannot because Scott Morrison announced a cap on international arrivals nine weeks ago and refuses to lift it, even though the NT can take more arrivals,” he said.
On ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he “would be happy to double the number of people tomorrow” provided states increased the number of rooms available to quarantine returned travellers for 14 days.”
Ms Keneally said the Federal Government was responsible for the borders.
“I have news for you Minister Dutton, you are in charge of international borders and you are in charge of quarantine arrangements — that’s what the constitution says,” she said.
Ms Fyles told a press conference on Monday morning Howard Springs had the capacity to quarantine 3,000 people and said there would be 1,000 people in the camp today with a flight coming from Melbourne.
“But it is something that we are conscious of, as we see more flights coming into the Territory, more people choosing to undertake that quarantine,” she said.
“It’s not as simple as saying that we’ve got space for 2,000 more people. That’s very complex, we need to keep people in different cohorts within that facility.
“If we are to see people coming in from a high risk overseas country with a higher spread of coronavirus all of that would have to be taken into account. But there is certainly the room at that facility….
“There’s certainly different facilities people have talked about. Hotels, which are sadly empty because we’ve seen a decline in tourism, but it is very complex and we saw that out of Victoria in terms of running a quarantine facility, it has to be very carefully managed and the Howard Springs facility because it is open air there’s no lifts there’s no narrow corridors, it has proved to be ideal.
“There would be a lot of work to be undertaken if we were to see international flights arriving into the Northern Territory.
“As I said, it’s always the health and safety of Territorians that comes first, but the Northern Territory is certainly open to that.
“The Northern Territory, of course, is well set up particularly with the Howard Springs facility and will continue through the chief minister to work through that at a National Cabinet level.
“I am, of course, in regular contact with the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt going forward.
“In this situation, but we would certainly seek the advice of our health professionals, before we will put our hand up for further facilities, and we of course would continue these discussions with the Commonwealth Government.”
Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced on Friday that the government planned to remove Sydney from the hotspot list on October 9, which would mean less people needing to be quarantined.
The NT has declared itself coronavirus free
Ms Fyles said the NT had met the clinical definition of eradication of COVID-19.
The Health Department said there has been 44 days with no new active cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Territory, and 28 days since the last two people with the virus recovered on August 14, so it is considered ‘eradicated’.
Ms Fyles said 28 days, or two replication cycles, was a long enough period to officially call the NT free of the virus.
It is the second time the virus has been declared ‘eradicated’ in the NT.
“We mustn’t become complacent, I believe we will see coronavirus in the Northern Territory,” Ms Fyles told a press conference.
“But we’re well prepared,” she said.
She said there were 2,500 people in the NT tested last week and encouraged people who felt unwell to get tested.
Howard Springs quarantine facility disaster relief
Ms Fyles said the government was considering how the Howard Springs quarantine facility, once home to 3,500 workers employed in the construction of the Inpex gas plant, could be used for natural disasters.
“We have been very conscious through COVID – when it first started to evolve it was the tail end of the wet season, but you do get some late cyclones. And we do see other natural disaster events in the Territory,” she said.
“This wet season we obviously have that as our quarantine facility and we need that for the foreseeable future, but how do we manage the potential of a natural disaster.
“When that village was being transferred over from being the Inpex workers village to the Northern Territory Government we were thinking more of a Territory emergency response.
“No one could have predicted coronavirus, but [the facility] is an asset not only to the Northern Territory but to Australia as a whole, and we want to work with the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions… so we do have that resilience.”