Minister reminds leaders of ‘deep, profound human duty’ to Australians

The federal government is on the verge of striking a deal to bring more Australians home via a quarantine facility in Darwin but the increase in capacity there may not happen until the risk of cyclones ease.

In the meantime, Health Minister Greg Hunt is warning state leaders to acknowledge their “deep, profound human duty” to help Australians return.

Quarantine workers will be the first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations with the rollout on track to start by the end of February.

The independent regulator is expected to give approval within days to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison saw being produced at the CSL facility last week.Credit:Getty Images

The first 80,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive in Australia before the end of the week and Mr Hunt also anticipates the Therapeutic Goods Administration will approve the AstraZeneca vaccine within days.

International arrivals into NSW and Queensland will double on Monday. NSW will again accept more than 3000 people a week, roughly half the national intake.

But Victoria has halted all arrivals during its present five-day lockdown due to community transmission among quarantine staff, just a week after agreeing they would increase. Premier Daniel Andrews has flagged he wants his state to accept “hundreds” of arrivals each week in the longer term.

His call for a “cold, hard discussion” about the general international intake has sparked renewed debate over hotel quarantine arrangements.

Mr Hunt hit back without naming Mr Andrews, saying leaders had to remember it was “a vital part of our humanity” to bring Australians home.

“[These are] mums and dads coming home to see their sons and daughters, children who have been studying overseas, families that have been separated, people coming home to say goodbye to loved ones, some themselves who may have terminal conditions,” he said. “That is our deep, profound, human duty, and we will continue to do that, and we’ll encourage all states and territories to do that.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is adamant the federal government will not run the entire hotel quarantine system.

His government has established a “national resilience facility” at Howard Springs on the outskirts of Darwin in line with Jane Halton’s review of quarantine arrangements but it is only taking 850 people a fortnight. Mr Morrison has flagged this number could be more than doubled. The camp has rooms for more than 3000 people but its available capacity depends on staffing and health facilities.

Mr Hunt has spoken with his NT counterpart Natasha Fyles and says it’s in the territory government’s hands as to what the next step up will be.

“We have so far struck two deals with the Northern Territory and a third one is very close but it is simply dependent on their capability assessment of what is the safe carrying capacity for the third stage of the Howard Springs facility,” he said.

So far, 3781 people on repatriation flights have quarantined at Howard Springs.

Labor’s spokeswoman on Home Affairs Kristina Keneally says the federal government should be running a quarantine facility with surge capacity to cope when states halt or cut their international intake.

“Quarantine outbreaks of COVID-19 remain the biggest failing right now in our COVID response, and Scott Morrison needs to take action to ensure that Australians are able to return home without exposing the broader community to risk,” she said.

The government will detail within days who will receive the first vaccine doses. Quarantine and border workers, aged care residents and staff and frontline healthcare workers are in the first stage of the rollout, which is expected to take about six weeks.

Australia has thus far placed orders for 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough for 10 million people, 53.8 million of the Oxford-AstraZeneca (including 50 million to be made locally), 51 million of the Novavax jab and 30 million through the global COVAX facility.

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