New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have agreed to allow more people into hotel quarantine as part of a national cabinet plan to boost the cap on arrivals to Australia from 4,000 to 6,000 a week.
On Friday Scott Morrison met with state and territory leaders, who agreed to a phased increase in their share of arrivals in a bid to help 24,000 Australians still stranded overseas who want to return.
Morrison also signalled that capacity for arrivals could soon be bolstered by charter flights to smaller states and territories, the use of Howard Springs as a quarantine facility and a plan to allow New Zealanders to travel to Australia without compulsory hotel quarantine.
New South Wales will take an extra 500 arrivals from 27 September. Queensland and Western Australia will start with 200 each from that date, before increasing to up to 500 arrivals on 4 and 11 October respectively.
The resolution with a longer lead time for Western Australia follows a week of tense public negotiations about the plan between Morrison and WA premier Mark McGowan.
McGowan told reporters in Perth the WA government had resisted the commonwealth’s attempt to “unilaterally double” arrivals and “secured a new way forward” with a delayed start that was “more appropriate and far more manageable”.
In Sydney on Friday, the prime minister thanked NSW for “their very quick and prompt response to support those liftings of the cap” on arrivals, but explained Queensland and Western Australia had been given “additional time to get the quarantine arrangements in place”.
The commonwealth will support hotel quarantine with more Australian Defence Force personnel but will not otherwise make a financial contribution because returned travellers pay for quarantine, Morrison said.
Earlier, the former health secretary, Jane Halton, briefed national cabinet on the conclusion of her snap review of hotel quarantine.
Morrison summarised the report as a “very positive” assessment of quarantine capacity, citing New South Wales in particular as a “very good” example.
Morrison said the report concluded there had been “a lot of lessons learned” in Victoria, where hotel quarantine has been suspended due to failures that directly caused its second wave of coronavirus infections.
In addition to disseminating lessons on contact tracing shared by New South Wales with Victoria, the commonwealth will lead an initiative to connect all the digital systems used by states and territories.
“If there were to be an outbreak in a particular place, “we would be able to swarm [and] harness the tracing capabilities of more states and territories, to plug in to the tracing work that is being done in that particular jurisdiction,” Morrison said.
There was no updated advice from chief medical officers about a common definition of a hotspot, an issue Morrison had driven in a bid to force states to reopen their borders.
But on Friday Queensland announced that it will allow travellers by plane from the Australian Capital Territory from 25 September, reflecting the territory’s two month stretch without any coronavirus cases despite its open borders with New South Wales. South Australia will review its border ban on NSW residents next week.
Morrison said national cabinet had adopted advice from chief medical officers that would allow children to come home in the school holidays, preventing boarding school students being blocked from their families by state borders.
Morrison said that smaller states and territories – the ACT, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory – have agreed to work with the commonwealth to receive charter or emergency flights from overseas because commercial operators are not flying to those places.
Morrison said the Howard Springs facility – which hosted emergency evacuees from Wuhan in February – will be able to be used for evacuation charters “if they become necessary” although none are currently planned.
States and territories also agreed to more mandatory data collection on domestic flights to assist with contact tracing. From 1 October, passengers will share their name, email address, mobile contact number and state of residence when flying.
Morrison also confirmed Australia is negotiating with New Zealand to ensure New Zealanders can come to Australia and vice versa “without the need to go through quarantine if they’re not coming from an area where there is an outbreak of Covid-19”.
Allowing New Zealanders into Australia without hotel quarantine, or allowing them to quarantine at home instead in a “worst case scenario”, is “another way of enabling more Australians to come home”, he said.
Labor believes that given 18,000 Australians were granted permission to leave Australia in August the backlog of 24,000 wanting to return home will not be quickly solved by a modest increase in the cap.
Labor has pressured the government over the issue by arguing it should use RAAF VIP aircraft – including planes reserved for the prime minister and governor general – to speed up Australians’ return.
Before national cabinet, Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the Morrison government of “failure to look after” Australians stranded overseas.
“Quarantine and our national borders are the responsibility of the federal government,” he said, calling on it to make a “substantial financial contribution” to quarantine if necessary to increase the cap.
As reported on Friday ahead of the meeting, national cabinet agreed to a $2bn extension of telehealth services for six months, until the end of March 2021.
Morrison announced that the commonwealth scheme to co-fund $1,500 “disaster payments” to pay for workers to self-isolate had now been taken up by Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales.
The scheme “ensures that, when someone has a positive Covid test, they can get access to those payments”, he said, expressing hope that Queensland will also join shortly.
Labor has derided the scheme as an effort to rebadge and change funding arrangements for existing state programs rather than offering genuine paid pandemic leave.
National cabinet will next meet on 16 October, following the federal budget on 6 October.