The man responsible for the nation’s borders has defended a plan to quarantine Australians evacuated from China on Christmas Island.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was grilled on Thursday about the plan to fly up to 600 Australians from China’s coronavirus-plagued Hubei province to Christmas Island.
They will remain on the isolated Australian island for up to 14 days.
Mr Dutton said the plan was also designed to keep the broader population safe.
“I can’t clear a hospital in Sydney or Melbourne to accommodate 600 people. We don’t have a facility otherwise that can take this number of people,” he told the Nine Network on Thursday.
“I want to make sure that we keep Australians safe.
“We want to help people out of a difficult situation but we don’t want to inadvertently put Australians here at home at risk either.”
Mr Dutton said the evacuation plan was hatched in consultation with Australia’s chief medical officer, who receives frequent advice from the World Health Organisation.
But Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone said Christmas Island was not an appropriate place to house Australians who had done nothing wrong.
“We feel that the repatriation … to a place where has been previously the focus of populations under enormous mental and physical trauma and anguish, is not a really appropriate solution,” he told the Nine Network.
“We’ll be calling on the PM and the relevant ministers to find a much more humane solution to dealing with a group of very vulnerable and concerned Australians.”
Dr Bartone said the government had any number of alternatives available – from defence sites to quarantine facilities – that it could use to house the evacuees.
Australian diplomats are continuing negotiations with Chinese authorities to clear the way for the operation.
More than 600 Australian citizens in Wuhan, where the deadly virus began, have registered for advice or assistance. The emergency airlift will also include up to 100 New Zealanders, who will also be taken to Christmas Island.
Qantas has offered its aircraft for use in the Wuhan evacuation.
Further details of the plan emerged as it was confirmed that seven people in Australia have coronavirus.
Four are in NSW, two in Victoria and one in Queensland; all are stable and being treated in hospital.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese questioned the motivation for using Christmas Island.
“I think that it is unclear whether that is motivated by a genuine belief that is the only option,” Mr Albanese told ABC radio.
“Or whether the embarrassment of the government opening Christmas Island having a husband, a wife from Biloela and their four-year-old and two-year-old daughters there at the cost of tens of billions of dollars.
“They need to be seen to be doing something at Christmas Island other than holding a press conference for Scott Morrison.”
The federal government spent more than $185 million to re-open the island’s detention centre in early 2019. It claimed it would need the facilities to hold detained refugees who became eligible for treatment in Australia under the controversial medevac laws.
Those laws have since been repealed, and the detention centre’s only occupants are a Tamil family of four from Biloela in Queensland. They are being held there pending the outcome of legal action over whether they can remain in Australia.
Evacuees held on Christmas Island will be isolated from locals and the Biloela family for the fortnight they are there.
The government has confirmed those evacuated will have to contribute financially to the trip.
China has so far logged more than 6000 cases of the respiratory illness and more than 130 deaths, mainly in Wuhan.
The Australian government’s official advice is that people should reconsider travel to China and should not go to Hubei province.