Aussies stranded overseas have been given a boost with the capacity of a key quarantine facility set to double.
The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 heard on Thursday the government was in “very advanced negotiations” to increase capacity at the Northern Territory’s Howard Spring centre to 1000 per fortnight.
Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed on Friday the federal government was “very close to concluding” a deal with the Northern Territory.
“We’ve exceeded our targets of bringing Australians home, but there are always more people looking to come home,” he said.
“We have to work with the states on expanding hotel quarantine capacity, but we’re also working directly with the Northern Territory.”
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the federal government would be tasked with co-ordinating repatriation flights, and he would be in a position to confirm details of the deal soon.
He said the imminent removal of hard domestic borders meant the facility would have increased capacity for Australians returning from overseas.
“It makes sense as we go into November 30 and Melbourne comes off (its coronavirus hot-spot listing) that we stand ready to help all fellow Australians,” he said.
“We’d love to see more Australians come home before Christmas and for the Territory to do its part.”
The development is good news for Australians stranded overseas. DFAT confirmed on Thursday the number of citizens looking to return had grown to 36,875 and conceded many would not be home for Christmas.
The committee heard on Thursday the closure of Melbourne Airport had significantly hampered efforts to repatriate Australians.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted the government had made “good progress” on the issue, saying more than 35,000 Australians had returned since mid-September.
But Labor has accused the federal government of abandoning Australians overseas and breaking a pledge to bring as many home before Christmas as possible.
“There are more than 30,000 Australians who are stranded,” leader Anthony Albanese said on Friday.
“This complacent government, this government obsessed with making announcements but not delivering outcomes, needs to do much better.”
It comes after three new coronavirus cases were confirmed at the Howard Springs facility. A four-year old girl tested positive along with two women aged 39 and 58. All three had arrived on a repatriation flight from India.
It takes the number of confirmed cases at the centre to 19, none of which were community transmission.