Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists progress is being made to restore repatriation flights from India as pressure mounts on the government to come up with a plan to return home stranded Australians.
The Australian government has halted flights to India until 15 May – saying the pause on flights is needed to prepare Australia’s quarantine system for the challenge posed by the raging COVID-19 outbreak in India.
But the government is yet to provide any firm details on a plan to return home some 9,000 Australians currently registered as wanting to leave India.
Mr Morrison said the pause on flights is easing pressure on Australia’s quarantine system.
“This is enabling us to get on the right footing to be able to restore repatriation flights and we are making good progress to that,” he told reporters.
“It is working and that means the pause will enable us to get Australian residents and their immediate families back on repatriation flights.”
Australia’s quarantine system witnessed an increase in the proportion of COVID-cases of Indian origin last month to approximately 56 per cent, rising from around 12 per cent a month ago.
The Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory – where many direct flights from India had been arriving – has also recorded a surge in the proportion of cases from India.
Mr Morrison has maintained the travel ban is a “necessary step” to prevent the risk of a “third wave” breaking out in Australia.
“We’re already starting to see as a result of the pause the incidence of those cases at Howard Springs starting to come down – we’ve got a bit more distance to travel there,” he said.
But the decision to impose the travel ban has faced sustained criticism from members of the Indian Australian community as well as human rights advocates who are concerned the response is unfair and heavy-handed.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews says the travel ban from India is being reviewed on a “daily basis” to ensure repatriation flights can be established as soon as possible.
“We are doing all that we can to look at ways to bring Australians home and as soon as it’s possible that will be happening,” she told reporters.
“This is a very serious situation and our hearts go out to the Indian community both in India and here in Australia.”
The Australian Medical Association has called on the government to urgently develop and put in place a plan to ensure the safe return home of Australians from India.
“Clearly there are a range of issues that we need to work through,” Ms Andrews said.
“As a government we are doing all that we can to bring vulnerable Australians home.”
The government has also walked back threats of imposing criminal sanctions against Australians who try to get home from India.
It was revealed last Friday that Australian citizens and residents failing to comply with the emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act could attract a $66,600 fine or a five-year jail term.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said there needed to be a firm approach to the travel ban but ruled out biosecurity laws leading to imprisonment.
“Nobody’s going to be jailed,” he told the ABC.
“We made that decision based on medical advice. We didn’t want plane loads of people coming back and swamping our quarantine system.”
Australia has begun sending emergency supplies to help the country’s health system deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, including oxygen containers, masks and respirators.
India has recorded more than 300,000 cases for 12 straight days as its total number of infections has risen beyond 20 million – placing immense pressure on the country’s health system.
The United States has imposed restrictions on international arrivals from India, but is still allowing the return of US citizens.
Other countries have imposed similar travel restrictions on India, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Singapore.
Meanwhile Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand have suspended all commercial travel with India.