No date set to reopen borders as number of stranded Aussies nears 40,000

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Nearly 40,000 Australians are stranded overseas but the country still doesn’t have a formal date for its border to reopen and the only dedicated national quarantine facility isn’t yet operating at full capacity.

In late March, the Home Affairs Department was working towards reopening the international border on November 1, 2021, a briefing to new minister Karen Andrews released to Labor under freedom of information laws shows.

Department of Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo says he has to be ready to reopen the international borders when governments direct it.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But Home Affairs head Mike Pezzullo said that advice was prepared before national cabinet decided to create a four-phase reopening plan based on conditions such as the proportion of people vaccinated rather than set dates.

“The job the [Australian Border Force] commissioner and I have, reporting to Minister Andrews, is to be ready once those triggers or those phases or those thresholds are met,” he told a Senate committee hearing.

“The commissioner and I have to notionally, in terms of our staff, assume all things being equal that we have to be ready to go on date X or date Y or date Z.”

Labor’s Katy Gallagher asked what those dates were.

“It’s X, Y and Z,” Mr Pezzullo replied. “And if I can specify any further, I’ll take that on notice.”

This prompted independent senator Jacqui Lambie to accuse him of being disrespectful for not answering the question.

“Give us a goddamn answer,” she said.

Mr Pezzullo said while closing the borders was a relatively brute force operation, reopening was more like “a very delicate, intricate Swiss watch”.

Senator Gallagher pushed further, asking: “So you don’t have a date?” Mr Pezzullo said he didn’t “want to be as blunt as that”.

Earlier in the hearing, Department of Foreign Affairs officials said there were now 38,523 Australians overseas who wanted to return, with 4569 classed as vulnerable. More than a quarter of those stranded are in India, including 191 children without their parents.

Australia suspended all flights from India for nearly three weeks in April and May before allowing facilitated flights to resume. National cabinet also halved the cap on incoming passengers on July 14, dropping to 2735 a week. That lower intake into hotel quarantine will remain in place until at least the end of August.

The number of arrivals at the Howard Springs quarantine facility near Darwin is yet to reach the expanded 2000-a-fortnight capacity announced in March. At the time, capacity was expected to be reached by May or June. It is currently housing 1279 people.

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Alison Frame told the Senate committee the facility would probably reach its expanded capacity in August, when three repatriation flights are due to arrive.

“[The numbers] had not ramped up as we had hoped,” she said.

Last Friday, the federal government awarded builder Multiplex the contract to build a new dedicated quarantine facility near Melbourne, with the aim of having 500 beds available by the end of the year and a further 500 next year. It is investigating sites in Queensland and Western Australia for more quarantine centres.

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