Several Australians stranded in India who were kicked off the first mercy flight back home because they tested positive to Covid-19 have been re-tested for the virus and returned a negative result.
Around 70 passengers were barred by authorities from boarding the Qantas flight from New Delhi before it landed in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, at 9.25am on Saturday.
The flight could have seated 150 passengers and was the first plane to leave India for Australia after the federal government closed the border to the Covid-ravaged country on April 27.
As part of precaution all the passengers were required to undergo pre-flight quarantine measures which included staying in a hotel and getting tested for Covid-19.
Around 70 passengers were barred by authorities from boarding the Qantas flight from New Delhi before it landed in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, at 9.25am on Saturday
Jatin Wig and his family were among the group of passengers who were stopped from boarding the plane
Forty-six of the passengers tested positive to the virus while another 24 people were considered close contacts, meaning they were barred from boarding the plane.
Several passengers have been re-tested for the virus and at least three have returned a negative result while others have claimed the information on their results came back with the wrong gender, age or time of testing.
It has also been revealed that CRL Diagnostics, the laboratory that conducted the tests, is no longer accredited by India’s National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories, ABC reported.
Though the laboratory is still registered with national medical research body Indian Council of Medical Research and allowed to conduct Covid-19 tests.
NABL chief executive N Venkateswaran said the laboratory had been suspended in April for ‘non-compliance with NABL accreditation norms’.
‘Due to confidentiality, we will not be able to say more than that the lab was found not complying with accreditation norms and hence suspended.’
CRL Diagnostics managing director Ravi Tomar said the suspension stemmed from the misuse of the NABL logo and that the laboratory was appealing for it to be lifted.
Jatin Wig and his family were among the group of passengers who were stopped from boarding the plane.
Mr Wig’s wife and toddler had tested positive to the virus despite showing no symptoms.
The flight could have seated 150 passengers and was the first plane to leave India for Australia after the federal government closed the border to the Covid-ravaged country on April 27
The Qantas plane had up to 80 Australians on board after 40 were refused because of positive Covid tests
The family was left in disbelief at the result and got re-tested for the virus before the result came back negative.
‘This is crazy,’ Mr Wig said. ‘I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.’
‘Obviously, there is something wrong with the initial tests, so many of them showed positive [results] and all of them [are] asymptomatic.’
University of New South Wales epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said the high volume of positive results and low number of passengers who actually displayed symptoms should have been a warning sign about the validity of the tests.
Following the arrival of the mercy flight on Saturday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said testing in India prior to further flights will continue to ensure Australia is protected from the virus.
‘We’re dealing with a situation where we’ve seen more than 800,000 new Covid cases a day, there are new variants of the virus,’ he told reporters in Melbourne.
‘We’ve got to maintain our health settings because we know how damaging to the livelihoods of Australians an outbreak would be.’
Asked what medical assistance would be given to infected Australians left behind in Delhi, Mr Frydenberg said the High Commission in India was working with them.
More than 9,000 Australians are registered as wanting to return, with about 900 of them said to be desperate or vulnerable.
Buses were waiting at the airport to ferry the passengers to their two weeks of quarantine (pictured)
The next government-facilitated flight is expected into Darwin on May 23, bringing up a total of 40 such flights since March 2020.
Both PCR and rapid antigen tests are a prerequisite for being able to board.
The 26 per cent positive rate among the 150 people considered for Saturday’s flight is far higher than the 3.5 per cent rate registered in passengers on flights in March.
National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre executive director Len Notaras says those who were unable to get on the Qantas Dreamliner will have to reapply to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a seat on another flight.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the situation was heartbreaking and particularly dire for unaccompanied children.
‘(Prime Minister) Scott Morrison should have kept his commitment to bring Australians home by Christmas,’ he said.
The Australians will be isolated at Howard Springs facility outside Darwin until they are cleared to travel on
The flight which left Darwin to collect the 80 Australians in Delhi on Friday carried 1056 ventilators, 60 oxygen concentrators and other essential supplies, adding to a wealth of medical equipment sent last week.
In the Northern Territory, the number of active cases has fallen from 53 to a handful although two US Marines who arrived as part of the Marine Rotational Force in Darwin on April 9 were added to the list on Saturday.
About 10 per cent of the Australian population has been vaccinated and some 2.98 million vaccine doses have been administered, with 400,000 people given a dose last week.
The rollout is expected to get a massive boost when GPs start administering jabs to all over-50s from Monday.
In WA, restrictions in Perth and Peel will be lifted from Saturday, with masks no longer mandatory except at airports, household gathering limits gone and sporting stadiums returning to full capacity.