Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has flagged he is willing to lead national talks on whether the number of Aussie citizens allowed back into the country should be drastically slashed.
Speaking at a press conference where he announced a snap five-day lockdown in Victoria after the virus again escaped from hotel quarantine, Mr Andrews suggested the number of people coming home needed to fall.
“There needs to be a cold, hard discussion and I’m happy to lead it,” the Premier said.
“With this UK strain – and we haven’t even got on to South Africa yet, because it’s just as bad – should we be having the total number of people coming home?
“Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds?
“That’s a conversation we should have, particularly given that we’re so close to being able to vaccinate those who, if they get this, will become gravely ill.”
Mr Andrews flagged that instead of Victoria receiving about 1200 returned Australian citizens each week, maybe only hundreds should be allowed back.
“We’re currently taking 1200 odd. We were going to go to 1310,” he said.
“The point I’m making is instead of doing 1310, maybe we should be doing hundreds.
“We should have a mature discussion about just how many people are coming back and the circumstances in which they are coming back.”
The Premier said the highly contagious UK strain sweeping across Europe and the rest of the world was “very different and presents a different challenge”.
“From a quarantine point of view, we’re not dealing with the virus we were dealing with last year,” Mr Andrews said.
“We’re dealing with a very different strain. It moves faster. It’s transmitted more easily.
“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.”
Victoria was due to expand the number of returned travellers it accepted to 1310 from next week, but that has been put on hold due to the snap lockdown.
The Victorian government has since paused all international flights from Saturday. Those already in the air will be allowed to land.
A government spokeswoman acknowledged it is a difficult news for Australians trying to get home.
“We know this will be difficult news for people who are overseas and want to get home but our focus right now has to be taking this short, sharp action,” she said.
“We will continue to assess the impact of the UK strain of the virus on our program and international arrivals, and will provide more information on the duration of this pause soon.”
She said freight flights would continue.