An aircraft due to bring home the first group of the 9000 Australians stranded in India will soon leave from the Northern Territory.
The Qantas plane will depart Darwin International Airport in the early on Friday afternoon, with just 12 hours to go before a federal government travel ban expires.
The plane will return on Saturday morning to Darwin, where those on board will be transported to the Howard Springs quarantine facility just outside the city.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner confirmed on Friday the facility will be able to accommodate 2000 quarantining people a fortnight by the end of June.
“We’re expected 450 from India over the rest of May as well as 600 from London and Istanbul,” he told Seven Network.
Mr Gunner said there was a lot of compassion in Darwin for the Australians and residents trying to get home.
The NT took in the first returning Australians in February last year from Wuhan, China, which was then the global epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
There have never been any breaches at the facility.
“No complacency,” Mr Gunner said, “but we’ve set ourselves a challenge to always get better”.
On Thursday, the NT government warned the COVID-19 infection rate among those returning from India could be in the double digits.
About 200 repatriated Australians are expected to start their two weeks of quarantine at Howard Springs in the coming week.
They will be some of the most vulnerable cases among the 9000 stranded in COVID-ravaged India, which is racking up an average of 300,000 new infections a day.
NT health officials are preparing for 10 per cent of the passengers on Saturday’s flight to be infected – five times more than repatriation flights from other countries.
Three flights are expected to land in Darwin from India during May and early June.
That will push Howard Springs’ population to about 1200 people and on track to 2000 by the end of June.
The facility can handle about 100 positive cases, but AUSMAT and NT Health teams hope to keep that number at 50.
NT Deputy Chief Health Officer Charles Payne said if the number of positive cases got too high, flights from India could be paused again, but that is unlikely.
About 490 people are quarantining at Howard Springs, where the number of people with coronavirus has fallen to five from more than 50 two weeks ago.
About 260 of 400 new health workers have been recruited to work at the jointly-run facility, which is expected to be handed over to the NT in June by the federal government.