Australians stranded overseas are facing a race against time to be home for Christmas, with the list of those wanting to return growing as coronavirus ravages the world.
The issue will be in the spotlight on Thursday when the Senate’s coronavirus response inquiry hears from citizens and permanent residents stuck abroad.
About 36,000 Australians want to come home, a steady increase on the 24,000 that were registered with the government in September.
At the time, Scott Morrison said he was keen to get as many as possible – if not all – of the stranded travellers home in time for Christmas.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the numbers had gone in the wrong direction since the prime minister’s announcement.
“More people are stranded than when he made the announcement that people would be home by Christmas,” she told the ABC.
Senator Wong predicted Mr Morrison would try to say he was referring to the vulnerable cohort on the list.
She also called for the federal government to take more responsibility for quarantine regimes after Melbourne’s deadly outbreak and Adelaide’s concerning cluster.
“Scott Morrison could show some leadership here,” Senator Wong said.
“He’s left it to the states and there’s been some pretty dreadful consequences of some of what has occurred, but more importantly, there hasn’t been federal leadership.”
The Senate inquiry will also grill senior bureaucrats from the foreign affairs, health, home affairs, prime minister and cabinet and infrastructure departments.
During the course of the pandemic more than 400,000 people have returned, with 30,000 of those on government-facilitated flights.
Mr Morrison has previously said stranded Australians would be made a priority over restarting the flow of international students into the country.
State borders are on track to open by Christmas with the exception of Western Australia which continues a hardline stance.
Tasmania will open to Victoria from Friday, while Queensland will allow travellers from NSW and Victoria from Tuesday.
The prime minister urged state and territory governments to back their health systems and keep borders open if coronavirus outbreaks flare up
“With Christmas coming up, that’s especially important,” Mr Morrison told 2GB radio.
“It’s important now that we open safely in Queensland and we remain safely open. I think business needs that assurance.”