The federal government is not ruling out funding a purpose-built quarantine facility, despite not allocating any for that purpose in Tuesday’s night federal budget.
Aside from the previously-announced $487m for the expansion of the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, there was no specific funding for the construction of other open air facilities.
However, the budget revealed the government is planning to pay for about 120 more repatriation flights to bring nearly half of the 34,000 Australians stuck overseas home by June 2022.
Foreign minister Marise Payne said on Wednesday there was $176.3m in funding for repatriation flights for stranded Australians, as well as funding for “a more responsive, effective and modern consular service”.
“We will support Australians to return and provide those living overseas with high quality, modern consular services from professional, specialised consular officers,” she said.
So far, 127 government-organised flights have brought back 18,800 Australians home, and $56m allocated in the budget will be used to bring another 17,000 home between now and June 2022. That’s about half of the 34,500 currently registered as trying to come back to Australia.
Dutch-Australian Pieter den Heten, who was stranded in Europe until October and now advocates for those still stuck overseas, told Guardian Australia the extra flights would be a “drop in the ocean” without an expansion of quarantine.
He said outside of the pre-assigned seating for those identified by the government as being the most vulnerable, there was no queue for people to return to Australia on the government-facilitated flights, meaning anyone could purchase a ticket when the sales go up, regardless of when they registered interest.
Den Heten said the queue would continue to grow.
“Unless they significantly increase the quarantine capacity, this problem will never go away.”
While the budget assumes Australia will have a full vaccination program in place by the end of 2021, the government expects the international border to remain closed for at least the next year.
The budget predicts a gradual return of migrants next year, with inbound and outbound travel expected to remain low until mid-2022 and returning Australians continuing to quarantine upon arrival.
Due to the outbreaks occurring in the hotel quarantine system, the Victorian, Queensland and Western Australian governments have been calling for the government to establish purpose-built quarantine facilities for Australians seeking to return from overseas to replace hotel quarantine.
Victoria has put a proposal to the federal government for a 500-bed cabin-style facility north of Melbourne, which could be scaled up to 3,000 beds.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, told Nine’s Today Show Victoria’s proposal was “very comprehensive” and the federal government would work with Victoria on the proposal.
“I don’t accept we are not funding those and I don’t accept we are not acting on those and I don’t accept we are not working with the states and territories because we are doing all three things,” he said.
Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the National Press Club on Wednesday that “we are working through that particular application” referring to Victoria’s proposal, and they would “respond in due course”.
As Victoria deals with a new Covid case – a returned traveller who it is believed contracted Covid-19 in hotel quarantine in South Australia – the state’s health minister, Martin Foley, said he was “disappointed” there was no funding in the budget for its open-air quarantine proposal. But he noted that the federal government hadn’t ruled it out.
He pointed out the federal government’s own estimates suggested quarantine may still be required for the next “18 months, if not longer”.
The federal budget also allocated $37.1m in support to the Indian government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis gripping the country, with funding provided for medical supplies.