18 January 2021

Canberra repatriation flight likely for February despite no official request from Commonwealth

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith says the ACT is preparing to receive a repatriation flight within the next month. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

The ACT is preparing to take its first repatriation flight of the year in early to mid-February after the Commonwealth Government announced that it would organise an extra 20 flights for the tens of thousands of Australians still stranded overseas.

The ACT was originally set to take a flight in early 2021 before the plan was shelved when National Cabinet halved the number of overseas arrivals coming into Australia 10 days ago.

Flights are scheduled by the Commonwealth Government, and while no official request to receive a flight has been made yet, the Territory is continuing to prepare its hotel quarantine program, Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith confirmed.

“We are in conversation with the Commonwealth about when we are going to take the next repatriation flight,” she told ABC Radio on Monday morning (18 January).

The 20 flights will be above the current cap on arrivals, Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham said.

However, the ACT would not accept a flight if more than 300 people were already quarantining in the Territory, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“It is important to remember that we do have consistently small numbers of people, returned overseas travellers, who are in quarantine in the ACT,” she said.

There are around 290 people in managed quarantine facilities and a further 500 people who have been to Sydney hotspots in self-declared quarantine.

The ACT has one dedicated quarantine hotel, the Pacific Suites Hotel on Northbourne Avenue, but returned diplomats and government officials isolating at home with the help of ACT Health also contribute to these numbers.

This is down from the thousands who were forced into quarantine when new travel restrictions from Sydney were introduced in the ACT before Christmas.

READ ALSO Repatriation flights coming to Canberra but Barr sets a limit on the ACT’s response

The ACT will also move towards the daily testing of hotel quarantine workers to reduce the risk of the virus entering the community, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Daily testing would not be introduced until saliva technology can be utilised in Canberra as the Health Minister said daily nasal swabs for workers were “unreasonable”.

“The good news is that technology has really come a long way, it is already being used in NSW and Victoria, and we are expecting to have that available before too long in the ACT as well,” she said.

The ACT is open to the possibility of receiving a second flight from the batch of 20, which is set to touch down between 31 January and 31 March, but the Territory will not take any flights simultaneously so only one flight per each 14-day quarantine cycle will be accepted.

Flights will also land in Tasmania and the Northern Territory where the dedicated Howard Springs quarantine facility can house between 500 and 850 people per fortnight.

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