Interview with Sally Sara, RN Breakfast
Sally Sara: Well, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne has met with her Indian counterpart in London overnight saying she expects the ban on Australians returning from India to end next week. The Government is expected today to outline its plan to get 9000 Australians home once the travel pause ends. And resuming flights from India will be discussed by National Cabinet today.
Dan Tehan is the Federal Trade and Tourism Minister. Dan Tehan, welcome back to RN Breakfast.
Dan Tehan: Morning, Sally. Pleasure to be with you.
Sara: What do we know about plans at the moment to get Australians back from India? What can you tell us?
Tehan: We've been planning what we could do around flights and what those flights would look like. Obviously, a lot of the planning is based around the medical advice that we're receiving because the most important thing is that we want to make sure that it's safe to resume those flights, and that we can deal with the situation in India and make sure that we can keep Australia safe through resuming those flights. So, we'll take a very considered approach to this and it will be an approach based on the medical advice and that, of course, is why we put the temporary pause in place.
Sara: What's the ballpark figure? How long do you think it will take to get those 9000 Australians home?
Tehan: Well, it's very hard to put any sort of timeframe on it but the aim is, if the medical advice is clear and we can resume flights from 15 May, then obviously we'll be doing what we can, especially, to get those most vulnerable passengers repatriated back to Australia.
Sara: And who's the Government talking to to make this happen? Will this be Qantas or the Defence Force to get people home?
Tehan: Well, that's one of the things which is under consideration as to what those repatriation flights will look like. They will be assisted flights. So, we have to obviously go through the planning and the Government will have more to say on that today.
Sara: Is there a chance that Defence could be involved?
Tehan: The Government will have more to say on this today and I'm not going to go into that level of detail here. But what Australians can be reassured of is that we're doing everything we can to make sure that we can get the flights up and running again by 15 May, if the medical advice says that's the right thing to do. You have to remember, there were 54 cases at Howard Springs when the temporary pause was put in place. That number is now halved and is expected to be around zero by 15 May. So, we will then put in place very cautious plans to resume, if that's what the medical advice says is the appropriate thing to do.
Sara: At this stage, is the plan to put those returned people into Howard Springs rather than hotel quarantine amongst the states?
Tehan: The idea would be to have those repatriation flights returning, those passengers returning, to Howard Springs in the first instance.
Sara: Is there a plan to increase the capacity overall at Howard Springs to speed up that process?
Tehan: We've just finished increasing the capacity of Howard Springs. It can now take up to 2000—and the Federal Government has been working very cooperatively with the Northern Territory Government on that and it's now in a position to be able to take 2000 returnees this month.
Sara: So, of the 9000 Australians who are still stranded in India, much concern is focussed on the 900 who are classified as vulnerable. How much of a sense of urgency is there to get them home?
Tehan: We’ll be working to do everything we can to try and get them home as quickly as we possibly can. Obviously, the situation on the ground in India is fraught, but our High Commission and our consuls have been working very, very diligently over the last few weeks to make sure that those people are identified and the arrangements can be put in place to try and repatriate them—but they're obviously spread out across India. So, there will be quite an amount of logistical work that’s required to be able to repatriate them. But, we’ll systematically and methodically work through that and make sure we’re doing it in a way which also means that we’re looking after those vulnerable Australians who want to return, looking after their health, but also making sure that we’ve got the facilities back here and our health facilities can look after them upon return.
Sara: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, has spoken with the Indian Foreign Minister, overnight. What’s the message from India been about this issue?
Tehan: The message between our two countries right throughout this pandemic has been about making sure we’re working together to help and assist each country deal with the pandemic. And I know, having spoken to my Indian counterpart last week, he was very grateful for the assistance that Australia was providing to help India deal with this third wave and we’ll continue to do what we can to help India and work with India to help deal with this current third wave that they’re facing.
Sara: Minister, this is a big turnaround from threatening on paper, at least, fines and jail for Australians who are trying to return from India, to then going actually to repatriation flights. Does the Government now concede that perhaps it went too hard on this issue?
Tehan: What the Government did was act on medical advice and that’s what we’ve done right throughout this pandemic -
Sara: [Talks over] But the advice was not to put in place jail terms, Minister?
Tehan: No. What the advice was, was to enact the Biosecurity Act and that's what the Government did. There were 53 cases in Howard Springs; there were an unacceptable high level of cases on the last two returning passenger flights and so the Government acted—and in acting, we kept Australia safe. We always said it was going to be temporary, which meant that we could deal with the cases in Howard Springs, which will be down to zero by the 15th of May, and means that we will be able to start bringing back these vulnerable Australians, if the medical advice says it's safe to do so on 15 May.
Sara: Under the Constitution, quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility. We're now more than a year into this pandemic. With hindsight, would it have been wise for the Federal Government to put together a quarantine facility early in the pandemic so that we wouldn't be having these kind of problems now?
Tehan: National Cabinet has been one of the things that has kept us safe as a nation right throughout this pandemic. And if you look at our performance as a nation versus-
Sara: [Talks over] But the specific issue is the Government meeting its responsibilities to build some kind of quarantine facility early, that would have solved a lot of these problems, wouldn’t it?
Tehan: Well, Sally, what I was going to go on to say was the National Cabinet agreed that the states would take care of quarantine and, on the whole, if you look at the record of our quarantine system, it has worked remarkably well. The Commonwealth has obviously helped and supported in the Northern Territory through Howard Springs, which will this month have the capacity of being able to facilitate 2000 passengers. So, we'll continue to work with the states and territories, through National Cabinet on this. But you have to always be able to step back and have a look at what we've achieved as a nation and what we've been able to do puts us in the first notch of those countries that have been able to deal with this pandemic—and our quarantine system has been one of the success stories to enable us to do that. Now, it hasn't been perfect everywhere and there has been outbreaks but on the whole, if you look at our record of dealing with the pandemic, it stands up with the best countries in the world.
Sara: Dan Tehan, thank you for joining us again on RN Breakfast.
Tehan: Thanks, Sally.
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