Scott Morrison has hit back at calls for Australians to be brought home from India if they have tested positive for Covid after dozens stranded in the South Asian nation were kicked off the first mercy flight back home following a temporary travel ban.
The Qantas repatriation flight from New Delhi to Darwin on Saturday that could have seated 150 was about half-full because more than 40 people who tested positive pre-flight along with 30 of their close contacts were barred from returning.
About 80 returnees who were allowed to board after returning negative tests are now in quarantine in the Howard Springs, with the Prime Minister declaring Australia will not import the virus from Covid-ravaged India.
‘Making sure we have a rigorous testing regime is very important and I have seen the suggestions from others who seem to think that we can put people who have tested Covid positive on planes and bring them into Australia,’ Mr Morrison said on Sunday.
‘I mean that just doesn’t make any sense.’
Jatin Wig and his family were among the group of passengers who were stopped from boarding the first repatriation flight from India to Australia after a temporary travel ban was lifted
About 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 passengers who were allowed to board are pictured walking from the plane
As part of precaution all passengers were required to undergo pre-flight quarantine measures which included staying in a hotel and getting tested for Covid.
However there are reports of some inconsistency in the testing results, adding to the frustration of Australians wanting to return home.
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.
Mr Morrison conceded India is a very difficult environment to operate in right now.
‘We will work closely with Qantas who are obviously conducting that testing regime as part of their process and they will get every support from us,’ he said.
‘I hope and intend for us to get even more home in the other repatriation commercially facilitated flights in the weeks ahead.’
A Qantas spokesperson said the airline will review its pre-flight testing procedures after it was revealed 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.
The laboratory is however still registered with national medical research body Indian Council of Medical Research and allowed to conduct Covid tests.
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
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said ‘it doesn’t make sense’ to have Covid positive passengers returning to Australians. Pictured, Defence personnel supporting the arrival of repatriated Australians from India
‘If there are concerns we will work together with DFAT to ensure the process is working as it should,’ the Qantas spokesperson said.
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 family was left in disbelief at the result and got re-tested for the virus before the result came back negative.
The Australians returning from India will be isolated at Howard Springs facility outside Darwin until they are cleared to travel on
The Qantas plane had up to 80 Australians on board after 40 were refused because of positive Covid tests
‘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.
Buses were waiting at the airport to ferry the passengers to their two weeks of quarantine (pictured)
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said ‘the next step’ on the reopening of the international border ‘is how we can safely have international students come back’. Pictured are Australian National University students in Canberra
More than 9,000 Australians are registered as wanting to return, with about 900 of them said to be desperate or vulnerable.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said Australians in India are very frustrated and while they are there, they are exposed to real health concerns.
He said if Australians had been brought home by last Christmas as the government had promised, they would not be Covid positive now.
‘If Scott Morrison had of kept his commitment, they wouldn’t be exposed to this danger,’ he told reporters in Narangba, Queensland.
‘If the federal government had have listened to (Queensland) Premier Palaszczuk last October the quarantine centres that she proposed, appropriate facilities, would be built now, would be opened, would be able to be used.’
More than 9000 Australians are registered as wanting to return, with about 900 of them said to be desperate or vulnerable.
The next government-facilitated flight is expected into Darwin on May 23, bringing up a total of 40 such flights since March 2020.
Mr Morrison said travel to countries with low-rates of Covid without strict quarantine was ‘still many months away’, with international students the priority when it came to reopening the border.
‘We are always working on the next step and the next step is how we can safely have international students come back,’ he said.
‘I welcome the fact that universities are stumping up to work with state governments to put those facilities in place to support those customers coming back, the students coming back.’