Melbourne, May 4 (PTI) The Australian Medical Association on Tuesday requested Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt to immediately withdraw the threat of a jail term and fine to Australians trying to return home from India, saying it has caused a lot of distress in the community.
The Australian government, for the first time in history, recently imposed a ban on its citizens from returning home, if they have spent time in India up to 14 days before flying back.
The government threatened to prosecute them with a possibility of five years of jail term or a penalty of 66,000 Australian dollars (USD 50,899).
Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Omar Khorshid said that the association was supportive of the pause on flights from India so that the country’s hotel quarantine system can be readied for the increased risk that the government is clearly seeing now of Australians returning with the virus from India.
'But the announcement from the government has caused a lot of distress in our community… and in particular members of our Indian medical community who have been distressed beyond words with this announcement, on top of the distress that they're already experiencing with friends and family being exposed to the terrible risks that are occurring in India.
“The government, in our view, should be doing everything in its power -- chartering flights, using our Defence Force if necessary -- to bring the most vulnerable of the Australians in India home,” he said.
Terming the government’s move “a real slap” in the face for Indian-Australians or Australians who are in India and also to their relatives, family and friends who are in Australia, Khorshid said that the priority had to be improving the country's quarantine system.
'We believe that there is a clear way forward here, we need to fix the issues that the government have now confirmed are occurring in hotel quarantine, to make hotel quarantine as safe as possible, to make it fit for purpose so that we can bring Australians home from all over the world without the risk of the virus getting into the community,' he said.
In the longer term, there is also the need to replace hotel quarantine with purpose-built facilities, he said, adding that 'I've had a conversation with the Minister of Health (Hunt) expressing that view today, and the AMA will continue to fight for that.” Earlier, the Human Rights Law Centre also criticised the decision, saying it was 'actively considering' mounting a legal challenge against the ban, after being approached by a number of Australians stuck overseas.
'There are serious questions around whether this ban is lawful under Australian law,' the centre's executive director Hugh de Kretser said.
'Instead of helping Australian citizens who are in trouble overseas in India, the government is abandoning, and worse, criminalising them,' Kretser said.
The ban was introduced under the Biosecurity Act, in a determination made by Hunt.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Morrison defended the decision and said that jailing or fining Australians who somehow make their way back from India during the flight ban is “highly unlikely”.
“I think the likelihood of any of that occurring is pretty much zero,” he was quoted as saying by Nine’s Today show.
He said that the ban was to prevent the government from having to restrict flights from other parts of the world.
“If we hadn’t done that, then we were at risk of having to shut off the flights from Doha and the Emirates and from other places, even potentially out of Japan. That would have prevented other Australians coming home,” he said.
On a demand to improve the national quarantine facilities for the returning travellers, Morrison said the government has already invested 500 million dollars (USD 385 million) on the Howard Springs facility in Darwin.
The capacity of that site will increase from 850 to 2,000 by the end of May.
“I won’t have it said that the Commonwealth is not doing its fair share of the heavy lifting when it comes to putting those facilities in place. We have done that. That’s where we will be bringing those Australians home from India,” he said.
In a special message to the Indian community in Australia, Morrison said: ''I know this is a very difficult time for Australians in our Indian community. You are a generous and kind community who have made a wonderful contribution to our country.'' ''We are very grateful to our Indian community. I know this is the time of great pain and fear,” he said, indicating that the government was making changes according to the new strains which were more virulent than the previous ones.
''I cannot see a third wave of this virus coming to Australia,” the Prime Minister added.
India is struggling with an unprecedented second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic with more than 3,00,000 daily new coronavirus cases being reported in the past few days.
According to Indian health ministry data on Tuesday, India's total tally of COVID-19 cases crossed the 2-crore mark with 3,57,229 infections being reported in a day, while the death toll increased to 2,22,408 with 3,449 new fatalities.
The total tally of COVID-19 cases in the country has climbed to 2,02,82,833, it said. PTI NC CPS AKJ CPS