My mathematical modelling is limited to simple maths and that by itself confirms that the current planning is inadequate. The scale is going to be overwhelming and the backlog of students who have to return before the new students can be brought in, is simply beyond the scope of current arrangements. Over the last few months, I have been observing the plight of “Australians stuck overseas” and the issues that they are facing in returning to Australia. The Government “correctly” is prioritising Australian Citizens and Residents over the stranded International “continuing” students. Since a close relative is to be brought back, I joined social media groups of such Australian citizens and residents who are continuing to scope ways by which they can return. It is a troublesome situation and any attempt to bring in internationals before the citizens will unnecessarily fuel negativity. This is also the reason why the various announced pilots to ferry the students back have not really taken off as there has been justified opposition to them.
There is data before us that close to 30,000 “Australian residents” had indicated desire to return back to Australia by the end of the year. I have a feeling that only about 20,000 will actually travel back as there are citizens and residents who may be dual citizens and may have had a change of mind. Also once most have been returned, the remaining may feel that pressures on flights in future will not be as severe and they may decide to wait out.
The challenges in bringing back the Australian residents is primarily limited by
- There is a cap of about 5000 currently for arrival in Australia each week due to the availability of satisfactory quarantine facilities. This cap will go up to about 6000 and possibly could go up to 10,000 by the end of the year.
- The second wave of infections in Victoria and the investigation in the quarantine process there. Melbourne has not been accepting International arrivals for sometime now.
- Limited flight options from around the world into Australia at this time. Only point to point flights are currently allowed (and likely to be this way till March 2021). From India the only option over the last month was the Air India’s Vande Bharat flights and they were only 5-6 such flights over the month and each flight carried only 40 odd passengers each. Some of the stranded had to spend several lakhs and travel through circuitous routes. Examples are: flight routing of travel from Delhi to San Francisco and then another ticket for San Francisco to Sydney on another, Delhi to KL on air india express (travelling without luggage) and then Malaysian Airlines from KL to Sydney after a long wait, India to Maldives to Colombo and then to Sydney… and such. And while there have been some chartered flights from Australia to India, there has not been any India to Australia chartered flights in recent months… primarily due to caps on arrivals.
- Now Australia will ply 4 flights each carrying 175 passengers but taken to institutional quarantine in Darwin, which is fairly basic in Australian summer and not suiting all. Still it will help bringing down the numbers of stranded Aussies.
I am quite confident that by December, assuming that the caps on arrivals is lifted to 7000-8000 soon, bulk of the stranded Australians will be back. My maths is that if there were 30,000 who had expressed desire to return earlier in October and during October about 6000 return (current caps plus the newly introduced qantas repatriation flights), the numbers still wanting to return will be about 24000 at the end of October. Then if the caps go up to about 7000 or 8000 and once Melbourne starts accepting International travellers (possibly by mid November), bulk of the remaining (and desiring to return) will be in Australia by Christmas.
Once this is done, Australia will be able to focus on returning the stranded International students (and certain other visa holders). How many of such are currently waiting? The data before us indicates that in May there were 120,000 stranded International students who were “continuing” students. Let us add students who got the visa in recent months and are studying “online”. So it can be expected that there will be about 140,000 students wanting to return to continue with their studies by the end of the year. If we add other visa holders who are need to return, we could be looking at approximately 160,000 stranded visa holders other than “new students”.
I am aware that a pilot to bring in “100 students” to NT and “300 students” to SA have been announced and this is great but the time for the pilots was months ago. Now we are faced with many more students to be brought back. Anyways, the pilots were bringing only a handful of students and from select countries and may only suit some students who are at the very end of their program and need to be here to wrap it up or some students who have been waiting for almost the full year. The next University semester is only in February-March and so the student returns could be prioritised after the citizens have been brought back. But we will need a strategy that has the ability for the scale.
Now this will be a logistical nightmare… And this is where my maths comes in again.
160,000 to be brought back and we assume that the monthly arrival caps and the “acceptable” quarantine availability is about 6000-7000 per week from January. (The caps could go up further if there is a political will but I have doubt considering what we experienced in Melbourne and there will be caution against dropping the guards and stringent quarantine requirement will continue to be required.) And there will always remain some other travellers who will need to continue to travel as economy returns to normalcy.
Simple maths: Even if the caps go up to 10000, the stranded students will take till mid 2021 to be brought back. No wonder that the Treasurer indicated that new International students will only arrive towards the end of 2021. He had done his maths.
There can be “out of the box” solutions:
- Quarantine Free travel bubble that has now been initiated with NZ can be extended to include other low risk countries and possibly China can be one such country, though ironical. The inclusion of China for the quarantine free travel will immediately free up 50% of the total stranded students who require quarantine. And if the caps go up per month, we may be able to bring back all stranded “non residents” by mid 2021 and then start accepting “new students” from the July 2021 intake.
- Compulsory Covid testing from approved labs prior to departures and testing on arrival can help reduce the quarantine requirement from 14 days to 7 days. This will double the quarantine availability.
- Creating Quarantine option in transit countries such as in Dubai or Singapore can be also an option. There is news that new Covid tests that can give faster results is being trialled and successful inclusion of such tests can help reduce the duration of quarantine.
- There are also reports that instead of quarantine, arrivals may be given a GPS linked ankle belts to wear while quarantining at home. I am not too sure on its acceptance in Australia for several reasons though.
What should the prospective students who really want to study in Australia do?
- Take admission, Get Visa and Begin Online studies ASAP. They will possibly be considered ahead in the queue to be allowed to travel. Life within Australia is near normal and will be so even in Victoria very soon. Australia is bound to be seen as a safe, possibly safest, destination for students.
- Till we have a vaccine, I don’t expect “quarantine free travel” for students from South Asia and even when there is a vaccine, we may have to wait till the world knows on the efficacy before quarantine requirement can be dropped. I am aware that there are countries that allow “home quarantine” options. I don’t expect Australia to go that way.
Since Quarantine is going to be a requirement for all incoming travellers over the next year, let’s take a look at what to expect…