A group of 35 Australians stranded in San Francisco by a cancelled United Airlines flight will be allowed to return home immediately after the infrastructure department intervened, revising arrival caps.
Despite the reprieve, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has accused the government of failing the estimated 36,785 Australians stranded overseas by not increasing quarantine capacity or helping them after flight cancellations.
Despite Scott Morrison’s suggestion that all 26,700 Australians overseas registered by mid-September could be home by Christmas, details of 10 new Qantas repatriation flights reveal just one will reach Australia in time for Christmas at home, with passengers of a further three to spend the holiday in hotel quarantine.
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At a press conference in Sydney, Albanese drew attention to the case of United Airlines flight UA863, which was due to depart from San Francisco overnight but was cancelled due a mechanical issue, stranding 30 to 35 Australian passengers.
Passengers were initially told that due to the arrival cap the airline could not guarantee they would be rebooked on a following flight, leaving them facing the prospect of either paying up to $19,000 for business class flights or waiting until January to fly.
The infrastructure department revised the airline’s cap so passengers could be rebooked on a flight to arrive on 28 November.
A United Airlines spokesperson told Guardian Australia it had “received approval from the relevant government authorities to make an exemption to Australia’s capacity restrictions”.
“We are contacting the customers to notify them and assist in scheduling their journey home.”
Albanese said he had spoken to one passenger, Luke, who had flown from New York but was told he would be unable to come to Australia until 20 January, despite there being space on the flight the following day.
The Labor leader said he had contacted the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, arguing it was “nonsensical that this could not be resolved”.
Although the issue was resolved before his press conference on Friday, Albanese said the uncertainty for Luke and those stuck in the hotel had caused “a great deal of distress for him and his fellow Australians” and many other Australians with cancelled flights were not so lucky.
“It shouldn’t take the intervention of the leader of the Labor party or shadow ministers Kristina Keneally or Penny Wong to get individual Australians home.
“Why is it that the government doesn’t have systems in place to deal with these issues? It’s not good enough.”
On Friday, Qantas released details of 10 government-facilitated flights to bring Australians from London, Frankfurt, Paris, Chennai and New Delhi to Darwin, where they will quarantine.
One flight from London on 30 November will see passengers home by Christmas, but three flights from Frankfurt, Chennai and Paris arrive in mid-December, meaning their passengers will spend Christmas in hotel quarantine.
Six of the flights take place after Christmas, with the last of the flights leaving New Delhi at the end of February.
In September, Scott Morrison held out hope that 26,700 Australians registered to come home would be able to do so by Christmas.
But on Thursday department of foreign affairs and trade officials revealed that although 35,000 Australians have returned home since then, only 14,000 were registered with the department, meaning more than 12,000 from the September cohort are still overseas.
After national cabinet declared alternatives to hotel quarantine were unsafe, Australia’s arrival cap will only increase when Melbourne resumes hotel quarantine on 7 December.
Australia is currently accepting 5,025 arrivals a week through Sydney, Brisbane and Perth after the suspension of quarantine in Adelaide and Melbourne, although Darwin, Hobart and Canberra act as surge capacity for special repatriation flights.
The Howard Springs facility near Darwin, which has already accommodated 500 people a fortnight under a deal between the federal and Northern Territory governments, will soon increase capacity by a further 500.
On Friday, the health minister, Greg Hunt, said the federal government was “very close to concluding an agreement with the Northern Territory to double the capacity for Howard Springs … to bring home more Australians earlier”.
But Albanese told reporters that the quarantine review conducted by former health secretary Jane Halton had concluded “the federal government needs to assume more responsibility for quarantine, and yet none of that has happened”.
At a Covid-19 Senate inquiry hearing on Thursday, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally argued the thrust of the recommendation was the commonwealth should set up new quarantine facilities rather than relying on those run by states and territories.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned Australia’s travel cap may breach international law obligations regarding reunifying children with their families and allowing citizens to travel home.
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