Australia will place a ban on all passenger flights coming from India in response to the country’s devastating surge in COVID cases.
The flights will be suspended until 15 May. The decision came after a meeting of senior government ministers in the National Security Committee on Tuesday.
Australia has also vowed to send oxygen supplies, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India as part of an emergency response package.
However, the suspension in flights creates further uncertainty for some 9,000 Australians still stranded in the country without a way to return home.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause did not amount to forsaking vulnerable Australians trapped in India.
“We don’t think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off as some seem to suggest,” he told reporters.
“I don’t see this as a problem that we are trying to solve – I see this as a group of people we are trying to help.
“These are Australians and Australian residents who need our help and we intend to ensure that we are able to restore in particular the repatriation flights.”
Indirect flights from India to Doha, Dubai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and on to Australia have also been suspended until 15 May.
India recorded 323,144 new cases on Tuesday and 2,771 deaths with the rising cases placing extreme place on the country’s health system.
It has suffered critical oxygen shortages as its health system is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, with some hospitals forced to turn away patients.
Australia has committed 500 non-invasive ventilators as well as surgical masks, gowns, goggles, gloves and face shields. The federal government is also preparing to send 100 oxygen concentrators and tanks to India.
It comes after Britain, Germany, the United States and the European Union also pledged urgent medical aid to try to contain the health crisis impacting the country.
Mr Morrison said the Australian government was committed to standing with India and Indian-Australians in Australia.
“The scenes we are seeing from India are truly heartbreaking,” he said.
“We will stand with them during this terrible crisis and for all Australians who are caught up in this terrible set of events.”
Mr Morrison says the decision to halt flights has been made to protect against a further increase in the percentage of cases in quarantine sourced from India.
The number of positive cases in quarantine had hovered around 90 a week in quarantine before this week, but the figure has since risen to 143.
People returning from India have also represented a higher proportion of cases, including 95 per cent of COVID-19 cases in quarantine at the Howard Springs facility in Northern Territory.
National cabinet had last week agreed to reduce flights from the country by 30 per cent, but Mr Morrison said the further response had been required due to the deteriorating situation in India.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis and it’s one that is gripping the world. This has been the case around the world over the course of the last year,” he told reporters.
“The need and the risk continues to grow … and that is very sad for the people of India.”
Consular support will continue to be provided to Australians in India while repatriation flights are placed on hold, with these individuals also eligible for hardship payments from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the Australian government was committed to seeking to “increase the frequency” of these flights once these were able to resume.
“This is no doubt a very difficult time for many, many people,” she said.
“For Indian-Australians, many here in Australia will be very concerned about family as well.”
The federal governments intends to review the flight suspension ahead of the cut-off date.
Mr Morrison has vowed the next phase of flights will focus on returning “vulnerable Australians” back home, promising there will be no priority flights for Australian cricket players competing in the IPL.
Prior to the current outbreak, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had planned eight flights from India to take place in May.
India’s total caseload stands at more than 17 million people and a total of 197,894 deaths as on Tuesday.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged all citizens to get vaccinated and to exercise caution amid what he called a “storm” of infections.