Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has defended the unprecedented ban on Australians returning from Covid-ravaged India despite the move being blasted as ‘horrifying’ and ‘outrageous’.
The federal government made made it illegal to fly home from India under threat of five years in jail and fines of $66,600.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the draconian restriction on Saturday morning, which will begin at 12.01am on Monday.
Mr Frydenberg stood by the the government’s decision, saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison acted on medical advice.
‘We have taken drastic action to keep Australians safe, and what we face in India is a very serious situation where the medical advice provided to the federal government has been to put in place these strict measures,’ he said on Sunday.
A crane places new biers in a disused granite quarry repurposed to cremate the dead due to COVID-19 in Bengaluru, India
Critical patients receive free oxygen amid rise in coronavirus cases across the country in Ghaziabad at Uttar Pradesh, India
Asked if it was irresponsible then to leave Australians there and effectively lock them out of their own country, Mr Frydenberg said the measure was drastic but temporary.
‘The best thing we can do is get supplies into India, which is what we’re doing – ventilators, masks, other PPE equipment,’ he told reporters.
‘We’re doing everything we can to support India at this very difficult time (but) we’ve also got to protect Australians.’
The emergency law, invoked under the Biosecurity Act, could see anyone who has been in India in the past 14 days charged with a crime.
This is the first time the Biosecurity Act has been used to stop Australians citizens returning to Australia under threat of jail.
It is also the first time in history the Australian Government has used any kind of emergency powers for that purpose.
Mr Hunt made the unprecedented determination under the Biosecurity Act after receiving advice from Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.
More than 9000 Australians in India are registered as wanting to return, including 650 registered as vulnerable. Pictured: Dwarka crematorium in India
Another 386,452 infections and 3,498 deaths were officially recorded on Friday – but medics have warned the true figures could be ten times greater, putting daily infections at three million
‘The risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of overseas travellers in quarantine in Australia who have acquired a Covid-19 infection in India,’ Mr Hunt said.
‘The government does not make these decisions lightly. However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.’
More than 9000 Australians in India are registered as wanting to return, including 650 registered as vulnerable.
The decision is based on the number of positive cases from India detected in the country’s quarantine facilities, Mr Hunt says. More than 150 overseas-acquired infections have been reported Australia-wide in the past week, many from India.
The massive penalties will last as long as the travel ban on arrivals from India, which will be reassessed on May 15.
Britain, Canada, and New Zealand are among other nations to also ban flights from India in an effort to prevent local infections as the crisis worsens.
Senior Labor MP Jason Clare told the ABC the flight ban was ‘the right call’ based on health advice, however criminalising citizens for trying to return was another story
‘It’d be a big call to make it a crime for Australians trying to get home … what we should be doing is trying to make it easier.’
‘We charted a flight to Wuhan (in China) to get Aussies out and took them to Christmas Island.’
‘Why aren’t we doing that now?’
Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director Elaine Pearson went a step further, calling the response ‘outrageous’
‘Australians have a right of return to their own country,’ she said.
A wreath lies on the coffin of a Covid-19 victim prior to cremation in Jammu, northern India. The nation is now in the grips of a Covid-caused humanitarian disaster
A disturbing graph shows the significant spike in Covid deaths in India in recent weeks, with some experts forecasting the trend could soon see 30,000 people dying each day
‘The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments for people who are facing desperate conditions and simply trying to return home.’
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young echoed the sentiments on Twitter.
‘Jail time and fines for Australians wanting to come home? Seriously? I’m horrified that the Morrison government thinks this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India,’ she said.
Some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, took advantage of a loophole to return from India via Doha earlier this week.
That loophole has since been closed, the Prime Minister confirmed.
Scott Morrison also promised restrictions to stop the return of Australians from the stricken nation, while Defence Minister Peter Dutton said India was facing ‘a horrific situation’.
On Thursday 3,498 people died in India from Covid-19, at the end of a horror week where daily deaths averaged over 3,000.
India’s spiralling coronavirus crisis was today laid bare as images circulated on social media of the bodies of 22 coronavirus victims stuffed into an overloaded ambulance to be taken to the crematorium.
Indian Covid patients try to rest inside a New Delhi banquet hall requisitioned for a makeshift ward
Another 386,452 infections and 3,498 deaths were officially recorded on Friday – but medics have warned the true figures could be ten times greater, putting daily infections at three million.
At that rate the country could see more than 30,000 deaths from coronavirus a day within a few weeks, but the country’s poor record keeping means the true toll may never be known.
Indian Premier League cricket team the Royal Challengers Bangalore players flew to Mumbai from their IPL bubble in Chennai on Monday, planning to return home via Doha but Richardson and Zampa were blindsided by Australia’s ban on passenger flights from India.
But the relieved pair managed to get tickets to Doha on Wednesday before securing seats on a chartered flight back to Australia.
Passengers from an Air India flight arriving at New Jersey in the United States on Thursday. All Indian flights into Australia have been stopped
Australian cricketer Adam Zampa (pictured with fiancee Harriet) raced home to Australia this week from Doha before the borders with India were slammed shut
Zampa and Richardson landed in Australia on Thursday and are in 14 days of hotel quarantine.
About 36,000 Australian citizens overseas are registered with the government to receive assistance returning home.
Mr Hunt said bringing Australians home would be a ‘top priority’ – but with the situation in India only getting worse it is believed that could take months.
He said National Cabinet wanted flights from India restarted ‘as soon as possible’ after the May 15 reassessment date.
The situation will be largely determined by ongoing medical advice and a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases in hotel quarantine.