The Victorian premier, battling an outbreak of the UK variant of coronavirus, has flagged slashing the number of Australians able to return home, suggesting travellers could only be allowed to enter the country on “compassionate grounds”.
The proposal sparked a furious reaction from citizens stuck overseas, who said the proposal was “unspeakable” because it would lead to people’s misfortunes being compared.
Daniel Andrews on Friday said there needed to be a “cold, hard discussion” about cutting international arrivals into Australia given the infectiousness of new variants spreading rapidly overseas.
Andrews made the comments while announcing a five-day lockdown for Victoria that he hoped would be a “circuit breaker” to give health authorities time to quell an outbreak linked to the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne airport.
Only days after describing Victoria’s hotel quarantine system as the best in the country, the premier said it was time to consider cuts to arrival caps to prevent further cases.
“There needs to be a cold, hard discussion, and I’m happy to lead it, if I have to, about whether with this UK strain ... should it be a much smaller [arrivals] program that’s based on compassionate grounds?” Andrews said on Friday.
“It’s not for me to make announcements about how many Australians get to come back to Australia. That’s for the federal government. What I’m saying is the game has changed. This thing is not the 2020 virus. It is very different. It is much faster. It spreads much more easily.”
Andrews said there needed to be a conversation about “what’s safe, what’s proportionate, what’s reasonable”.
“Particularly when we’re so close to getting that vaccine rolled out,” he said.
About 40,000 Australians remain stuck overseas, with the path home becoming more fraught since arrival caps were reduced earlier this year in response to concerns about new variants of the disease.
Karen Werner, who has been trying to move back to Bendigo with her American husband and their toddler, was furious at the Victorian premier’s comments.
“I am really horrified by this idea,” she told Guardian Australia. “It’s already hard enough being stranded and abandoned by our government, but to lay out for them our tragedies and weaknesses, and have them judge us against one another? It’s unspeakable.”
Kym Bramley, originally from Geelong, has been in Hermosillo, Mexico, since October 2019 waiting for her partner’s visa to be processed. She has been trying to get home since mid-2020 and currently has a flight booked for March.
“I wouldn’t call it frustrating, so much as devastating to me as a Victorian,” she said after Andrews’ press conference. “I booked my flight into Sydney because the situation there seems more certain.”
Bramley can’t work in Mexico due to an expired visa but has a job in Australia. She has dwindling funds after one flight cancellation, and a medical condition that makes her more vulnerable to Covid, but is unsure if that would “qualify for compassion”.
“I shouldn’t have to beg and plead my story to enter my own country. That is demeaning and feels invasive,” she said.
“That’s probably the biggest disgrace - making me state my case as to why I should be allowed to return home for someone to tick and flick a few boxes to decide if I deserve compassion or not. I don’t have any right to live anywhere else. I have one passport and it’s Australian.”
Bramley said she doesn’t care if the federal government sets up quarantine facilities in regional Australia – she just wants to get home. “They just need to be fit for purpose. They need to be safe and humane with proper ventilation and opening windows.”
There was also furious reaction on Friday evening to Andrews’ comments across several Facebook groups made up of stranded Australians.
The national cap was set to increase to more than 6,000 each week from Monday, but Andrews announced earlier this week that Victoria would not be increasing its numbers from the current rate of 1,120 each week. He said on Friday international flights other than those already in the air would not arrive into the state during the five-day lockdown.
Andrews suggested only allowing people with compassionate reasons to return could cut the number of arrivals from thousands to hundreds.
“I’m not saying you would have zero people come to the country, maybe we should be much more focused on genuine humanitarian cases, compassionate cases, that are in the hundreds, not people in their thousands who are coming here for many different reasons,” he said.
“Maybe we need as a nation to change our settings, change our approach, change our program.”
Earlier this week, Andrews clashed with his NSW counterpart, Gladys Berejiklian, who derided his comment that Victoria’s quarantine system was the best in Australia.
“He’s pretty good at spin and that’s all I’ll say,” Berejiklian told 2GB radio on Wednesday. “In NSW we’ve demonstrated, because of the number of people we’ve been able to bring back home, the robustness of it. [But] mistakes will happen, it doesn’t matter how good your system is.”
From Monday, NSW plans to increase the number of international arrivals it accepts to 3010 each week. A spokeswoman for Berejiklian would not comment on Friday regarding Andrews’ calls for a discussion about cutting international arrivals.
Queensland’s deputy premier, Steven Miles, who was speaking around the same time as Andrews on Friday, said a dedicated national quarantine facility should be built to tackle increasingly infectious strains.
He did not refer to Andrews’ comments and a government spokesman later declined to address them directly.
Miles said outbreaks involving the UK-variant linked to hotel quarantine in Brisbane and Perth showed it had to be treated differently.
“Victoria probably wouldn’t be going into this kind of lockdown if there was a dedicated national quarantine facility,” Miles said. “This new strain is more dangerous in hotel settings.”
The Australian Medical Association president, Dr Omar Khorshid, who was speaking to Guardian Australia before Andrews’ press conference, said it was not too late for specialised quarantine facilities to be built.
“Hotel quarantine was a last minute, very quickly implemented solution to an emergency problem. It’s not how you would have designed the system if you had had the time,” he said.
“The question now is should we be building facilities that are fit for purpose, acknowledging that this particular pandemic is going to be continuing for some time, vaccines are probably not going to be a complete cure, and we are likely to need border controls for quite some time, possibly years. And also we want to be prepared for the next pandemic.
“So building appropriate facilities … we are certainly calling on government to start doing that. In the mean time, we have got to get hotel quarantine right.”
Prof Peter Collignon, a member of the Infection Control Expert Group, which advises on infection prevention and control measures, said hotel quarantine had largely been successful.
“Australia has almost no community transmission or none,” Collignon, who was also speaking before Andrews, said. “We have been very successful with the hotel quarantine system so far. And the new strains still transmit the same way, they might have a higher transmissibility rate, but the basic principles are the same.”