Wednesday, 05 May 2021

Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National

Topics: COVID-19 situation in India, international borders, Biloela family


FRAN KELLY: Karen Andrews is the Minister for Home Affairs, responsible for our borders - who comes in and out of the country. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY: What do you say to families there? Mothers like Tricia who have unaccompanied minors, five-year-old Johanna in India, and can't be with them because of the Government's travel ban?

KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I understand exactly how those families must be feeling, and honestly, my heart goes out to them. They are in terrible circumstances. People who are in India who are burying their family members, I mean it's a terrible situation. As a Government, we have made the decision to pause flights coming in from India, and to restrict travel from third countries for people coming in from India if they've been there in the last 14 days. I do think that that is the right action to be taking. We do know that with the charter flights that had been coming in, one in eight of those passengers was testing COVID positive. We had to take action to restrict that. I am confident that this will be a temporary pause. The Government is doing every single thing we can do to try and get those borders reopened as quickly as, as we can.

FRAN KELLY: I want to the plan for that. But, when the Government announced it - and this has really been a point of contention - the Government announced, you know, that anyone attempting to come back home during that pause or that ban would face five years' prison and a $66,000 fine - that's built into the Act. No other country in the world has made it a crime for its own citizens to return home. Is the Government still committed to that measure?

KAREN ANDREWS: Well, they're provisions that are in the Biosecurity Act-

FRAN KELLY: So, that's still the threat hanging over people?

KAREN ANDREWS: It remains as a provision of that Act. What I would say to, to people is that we are working to get our borders reopened as soon as we can. It is a temporary pause. So-

FRAN KELLY: So, what's temporary about it? When you say you're working to get the borders open, what is the plan?

KAREN ANDREWS: So, there are things that we need to do in terms of quarantine. We knew that we needed to get the caseload down in Howard Springs - that is actually happening, albeit quite slowly, but it is still happening, the number of cases are coming down. We are working with the States and Territories as to how we can start to bring flights back into Australia, how we are going to start to repatriate. I've had a number of discussions with Border Force, they are in a position that once those borders are open and the flights are coming back in again, they will be clearly in a position to be able to deal with that, with moving people through green zones and red zones with their travel.

FRAN KELLY: So it's the same plan we already have in place? It's putting people in Howard Springs; it's putting people in hotel quarantine. So why are we banning them? Why aren't we just bringing Australians only on DFAT repatriation flights into the quarantine system that's been operating?

KAREN ANDREWS: Because the number of positive cases that had been coming in, we're at a level that our health officials were concerned. And it was actually the health advice that said that these temporary measures were what they recommended.

FRAN KELLY: But won't they still be the same proportion of positive people coming in? So therefore, how can we handle it better? What's changing that means it will be safer now?

KAREN ANDREWS: It's reducing the caseload so that we are in a better position to deal with that. And that was always the issue when we were trying to get our hospitals ready to cope 12 to 14 months ago. We needed to make sure that we were going to be in a position to support the people that needed to be placed in hospital that needed medical support. That's why we ramped up to make sure that we had a minimum capacity of 7500 invasive ventilators. It was all about our health system and our preparedness and our ability to be able to deal with the caseload.

FRAN KELLY: But we're doing nothing else? Are we doing anything about further testing? More testing before people get on flights? Or are we trying to vaccinate people in the place in India before they jump on the flights? Which has been a suggestion here from Indian community leaders. Or are you building more surge capacity, open-air quarantine capacity here as an emergency surge capacity for when people come home, to make it safer? Because if possibly people are coming in, we know it's not safe in hotel quarantine.

KAREN ANDREWS: So, what I can say to that, Fran, very genuinely, is that we are working every single day to do what we can to support the Indian community in Australia, to support India as a nation. We are providing them with as much medical support as we possibly can.

FRAN KELLY: With respect, Minister, that was not my question. My question is, how are we trying to bring down the level of infection that goes into our quarantine system? Because when we do bring these people home, which you say will begin on May 15, there will still be the same level of infection, won't there?

KAREN ANDREWS: What we are doing - and I am endeavouring to answer your question very directly, Fran - we actually need to look at various systems and procedures to put in place so that we can identify those people that may have been vaccinated coming into this country. That is ongoing work. So, it's not just about dealing with the crisis in India at the moment, and getting Australians back from India. It's also the medium to longer term view as to how we're going to open up our borders, and how we're going to know who has been vaccinated, which vaccination they have had, which countries have they come from, whether it will be hotel quarantine when they get here, whether it will be home quarantine - those are all the issues that are being discussed across Government. Now, we have an immediate issue with India. And one of the things that we will be looking at is what the vaccination programme has been in India, who has been vaccinated - that support is being rolled out as quickly as it possibly can through our officials in India. So Barry O'Farrell is doing all that he can to support the Australian community in India to make sure that they are ready to come home as soon as we can get them here.

FRAN KELLY: Can I just ask you specifically on that, is Barry O'Farrell, our High Commission there, or anyone trying to offer vaccines, or ensure that Australian's wanting to come home get access to a vaccine? Is there any effort on that front?

KAREN ANDREWS: There's a lot of effort being done to make sure that we can ready Australians to come back home - the is the absolutely priority, and Barry O'Farrell is right across those issues and the vaccination issues, and he's working hard to support that.

FRAN KELLY: Though vaccinations not a condition of coming home. So, if people come into the country with the same level of infection that has been the reason for this pause - because, basically, our quarantine system can't cope with it - are we putting in place any kind of emergency, open air, surge quarantine capacity so we can bring these 9000 people home quickly? Or are we simply relying on the same system that got overwhelmed and we know can't deal with infection in the hotels?

KAREN ANDREWS: No. We aren't relying on the same system, and that's what I was just going through, Fran - that we are looking at a whole range of options that is going to make it safe for people to come into Australia on the medium and the longer term, and we are dealing specifically with the Indian issues. We are looking at what we can do with vaccinations, how we can safely repatriate the maximum number of people here to Australia. So all of that is happening. You're right, it's not necessarily a precondition of travel, but they are the things that we need to look at as we open up our nation.

FRAN KELLY: There's 40 cricketers stuck overseas too, now that the IPL has suspended its play, its matches. Is the Government talking with the players or Cricket Australia about their plight? Because they, like others, make the point they were given legal exemptions to go from Border Force - from your Department - to leave the country. And now they and others- they haven't broken any rules, they're threatened with criminal sanctions on the way back and they're not allowed in.

KAREN ANDREWS: Well, there are many Australians who are in India for a range of reasons - some certainly personal, some for work or business reasons. What I'd say to them is that this is a temporary pause until 15 May. We will be doing all we can to reopen past that point. So the best advice that I can give them is to remain where they are, to keep themselves as COVID-safe as they possibly can. And as soon as it's possible for them to come home safely, and for our community to be protected, then they will be able to be here.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, on another issue we spoke about last time, when you were just appointed, the situation of the family known as the Biloela family. They're in immigration detention on Christmas Island. They've being detained now for more than a thousand days. When we last spoke you said you were seeking detailed briefings. Have you had those briefings? Have you come to a conclusion about the fate of this family? Will they be allowed to live in the community? Or will they remain in detention on Christmas Island?

KAREN ANDREWS: So, yes. I received the briefing that I asked for, which was for me to be briefed on the facts of the matter so far. Yes, I have received that. What I will say, and I understand that you're not going to be happy with this answer, is that the matter is currently before the courts and there is nothing that I am going to say or do that is going to prejudice either the Government or that family. So for the time being, my response is that the matter needs to continue to follow the pathway through the courts, and then I will look and see what the outcomes of those are. But, I'm not going to prejudice the family.

FRAN KELLY: No. I understand you can't prejudice the courts, but my issue is- my question is, really, why they need to be in detention on Christmas Island while the matter goes through the courts. We have community detention in this country. When we spoke with the Shadow Home Affairs, Kristina Kennelly, after she had visited them on Christmas Island, she asked why couldn't they live on one of the empty houses on Christmas Island, for instance? Do they? Are you committed to them remaining in the detention centre on Christmas Island? Or are you considering community detention?

KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the welfare of that family on Christmas Island is clearly an issue that I have turned my mind to. I am seeking advice on that at the moment. I will continue to seek advice. The advice that I have is that the family is very well supported. In terms of other accommodation that may be available to them on Christmas Island, that's an ongoing discussion that I'm having with our officials.

FRAN KELLY: Why not? I mean, you can see the issue with small children born in Australia, living in detention alone in Christmas Island. Why not just allow them either to live in community detention on Christmas Island? Or in Biloela in fact, where the community wants them? They will still be living in detention, just community detention, as are many thousands of people at the moment in this country. Why not just do that now?

KAREN ANDREWS: And I said that I have looked at that, I will continue to look at that, and I'm taking advice from the officials who are very well experienced in these matters. And I will make a response to that in the not too distant future.

FRAN KELLY: Are the officials tell you there's any reason why they can't be released to community detention?

KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I don't want to go into the advice that I've been given in that detail. I'm certainly asking questions. The officials are giving me the advice that I need at this point in time, and I'll make a decision accordingly.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

KAREN ANDREWS: Pleasure. Take care.

FRAN KELLY: Karen Andrews is the Home Affairs Minister.