The Australian Government has made major changes to how it accepts return travellers in response to the mutant, highly contagious strain of COVID-19 circulating overseas
For the short term, the number of people welcomed back to Australia will be halved.
The changes are expected to have significant flow-on effects for those overseas still waiting to return to Australia, where the virus is relatively under control.
Let’s unpack the new rules.
How many people can now fly back to Australia?
National Cabinet today agreed to halve the number of international arrivals allowed into three states over the next month.
Until February 15, NSW will be allowed to take a maximum of 1,505 people a week into hotel quarantine.
Queensland will be allowed a maximum of 500 people weekly, while Western Australia’s cap will be 512 individuals.
There will be no change in Victoria or South Australia, and the Government will make individual agreements with the Northern Territory, ACT and Tasmania.
It will take about a week for the arrival numbers to be crunched down due to flights “already in the pipeline”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
What else must passengers do?
All passengers must test negative before arriving in Australia.
Some exemptions apply, depending on where you’re coming from or why you’re coming to Australia.
For example, seasonal workers from amber-risk countries where there is limited access to testing may be excused from pre-departure testing and instead be tested on arrival.
Passengers on all flights from the United Kingdom will be subject to rapid testing for the new strain of coronavirus before they board flights to Australia.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said return travellers heading to the Howard Springs quarantine facility have already been undergoing pre-flight testing.
Mask wearing is also now compulsory (excluding children 12 and under and those with other accepted exemptions) in all international and domestic airports and flights.
Quarantine workers such as cleaners in quarantine hotels or bus drivers at airports will also now have to undertake daily testing.
Why don’t we ban travel from certain countries?
Essentially there’s not much point.
Mr Morrison said the idea that the new strain in the UK, which is 70 per cent more transmissible, will stay within that country is misguided.
“We anticipate that this will become the more dominant strain of the virus globally,” he said.
“Indeed, 80 per cent of Australians registered overseas are now in countries where that new strain is evident.
“There are other strains as well… which means that this virus continues to write its own rules, and that means we must continue to be adaptable in how we continue to fight it.”
Will flights get more expensive?
Travel expert Craig Fyfe, who has worked in the industry for 30 years, expects prices to surge even higher now.
Mr Fyfe has a number of clients stuck overseas but fears those who have actually been able to secure flights home will now be bumped.
“It’s the laws of supply and demand. Airlines are only able to bring in a certain number of passengers because of the number of quarantine spaces available.
“Because of that, airlines turn around and go, ‘we aren’t going to sell a cheap seat, we are going to sell our fares at top level economy and business class’.
“Passengers who have purchased a ‘low yield’ fare may find themselves bumped off a flight to be replaced by passengers who are prepared to pay a premium for their seat to come home.”
On February 14, a Qatar flight from London to Brisbane, where only business class is being offered, will cost roughly $13,000.
A flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane on United Airlines on the same date, again with only business class available, is priced at roughly $21,000.
“I don’t know a lot of people who have $21,000 lying around,” Mr Fyfe said.
But those trying to book flights to Australia at any point should book direct through an airline or with a travel agent, said Mr Fyfe, who runs Your Travel Expert.
“A lot of the online agencies will charge you for all the flight changes.”
What support is available for those stuck overseas?
If you’ve been unable to return to Australia due to COVID-19 restrictions and are experiencing financial distress you may be eligible for an interest-free loan to cover living costs while you wait for a flight.
There are also loans available to cover the costs of the flight.
Mr Morrison said about $15.5 million has been provided as part of a “hardship fund” which is made up of small loans or direct financial assistance to Australian overseas.
“We approved a budget of over $60 million for that last year,” he said.
“If they’re genuine hardship issues, DFAT has already resourced and supported people in that case.”