Greg Hunt has clarified that foreign business people and actors will not be subjected to the “Australians first” approach to international arrivals as Australia struggles to clear a backlog of people seeking to come home.
The health minister suggested that “national interest” exemptions would continue to apply, clarifying that investors will not be barred by the rule that prevents large numbers of international students coming ahead of 36,500 Australians still seeking to return.
On Friday Scott Morrison revealed Australia’s chief health advisers had concluded alternatives to hotel quarantine are not currently considered safe, despite saying in October he wanted to develop “innovative” alternatives.
The prospect of Australia increasing the cap of 6,000 arrivals a week will now depend on increasing hotel capacity, including when Melbourne resumes arrivals, and approving low-risk countries for quarantine-free travel, following the New Zealand model.
Morrison said the commonwealth and national cabinet’s policy is “Australians coming home first” – but did not explain why international students were singled out to go to the back of the queue while business travel is permitted with special approval.
On Sunday, the health minister said Australia had already “surpassed the prime minister’s target”, an apparent reference to repatriating 25,000 Australians who had registered to return by mid-September.
Hunt explained the 36,500 backlog was caused by “additional people” choosing to come home, a problem Australia would have “forever” as some leave and some return.
Hunt said arrivals could be further boosted by more capacity at Howard Springs and “green lanes” with countries that are “overwhelmingly safe”.
Asked about other categories of international travellers including business people, actors and people working on film productions, Hunt replied: “Where it’s something that an individual, critical for [economic] activity [does] … there are many reasons in terms of national interest”.
The current list of exemptions allows workers in the seasonal worker and Pacific labour programs, and people who hold a business innovation and investment visa.
“We would like to see international students – but because there are large numbers, they could displace a very large number of Australians,” Hunt said.
“Australians would find it odd if we said a large number of Australians should wait.”
Earlier, the education minister Dan Tehan clarified that pilot programs to bring small numbers of international students to the Northern Territory and South Australia will go ahead within existing caps.
Tehan told Sky News Australia has become a “a victim of our own success” as coronavirus cases rise worldwide and more Australians seek to come home.
Tehan said the federal government had written to states and territories asking them to submit chief health officer-approved plans to bring international students back.
The government is still continuing to “explore options” such as quarantine on campus, he said.
The Australian national vaccine policy, released on Friday, stipulated that a Covid-19 vaccine will be voluntary but the government may require it as a condition of entry to Australia.
Hunt told reporters while those options are open the government hadn’t made any decisions. “There are always options that have been reserved but at this stage I’m not anticipating [we will do that].”
Hunt said vaccination rates among children had actually increased during the pandemic, so the government expects “very wide take-up” of a Covid-19 vaccine.