More than 9,000 Australians in India who are registered as wanting to return home are in limbo, with a flight ban in place until 15 May. In addition to the ban, Australia has for the first time said those flying home could face up to five years in jail and fines if they breach the ban.
The Australian Human Rights Commission, UN human rights committee and health experts including the Australian Medical Association have criticised the harsh measures, saying Australians should have the right to return home.
A Guardian Australia analysis revealed at the time Australia introduced the ban, India had fewer coronavirus cases per capita than either the US or the UK during their respective Covid peaks, yet bans and threats of jail and fines were never introduced for those countries.
Amid the backlash, the deputy prime minister said on Wednesday: “No one’s going to be jailed, let’s be honest,” but that the government wanted to ensure Australians “follow the rules”. He urged Australians in India to be patient and to wait for the travel ban review on 15 May. But the ban is now being challenged in the federal court.
Other countries, even those still battling Covid, are still allowing citizens to return from India. The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, said Australia should be able to manage arrivals from India according to risk, port of origin and vaccination status.
“We could triage even our positive cases into those at low risk, such as those not infected with a variant of concern, those with mild or no symptoms, with low viral load and low risk of serious illness,” she said. Those people could go into home quarantine with frequent compliance checks, Bennett said.
More risky cases could go into designated “hot” hotels identified as having good ventilation and infection control in place. “If we get a system working well that triages risk, then we should be able to increase overall intake numbers also,” she said.
So how are other countries managing their citizens who want to return from India?
As of Tuesday, entry to the US from India was suspended for certain non-immigrant travellers. These travellers must first stay in another country for at least 15 days before applying to return to the US.
But US citizens, lawful permanent residents and immigrants can continue to enter the country on commercial flights. The suspension of entry does not apply to non-US citizen spouses or unmarried children of US citizens and legal permanent residents. There are also other categories of people eligible to apply for entry, such as journalists.
All travellers from India, including those who are vaccinated, must return a negative Covid-19 test no more than three days before flying. Everyone must be tested again for Covid upon entry to the US.
According to the US embassy, airlines continue to operate dozens of direct flights each week from India to the US. Additional flight options remain available via transfers in Paris, Frankfurt and Doha. In general, however, the embassy in India does not assist people wishing to return in finding those commercial flights.
Effective from 22 April, Canada suspended direct flights from India for 30 days.
During this period, passengers who travel to Canada from India via an indirect route must obtain a pre-departure negative test result from a third country before being allowed to travel to Canada. Travellers who have previously tested positive must provide proof of a positive test obtained between 14 and 90 days prior to departure, instead of a negative Covid-19 test.
“This proof must be obtained in a third country before the continuation of the journey to Canada,” the website for the Canadian embassy states.
Transport minister Omar Alghabra said the suspension was to protect the health and safety of Canadians. “That is why Transport Canada has issued a notice to air operators to temporarily suspend passenger flights from India and Pakistan, where there is an elevated number of passengers arriving with cases of Covid-19,” he said.
There are still a limited number of flights between India and the UK. British and Irish nationals, and third-country nationals with residence rights in the UK arriving in England from India can still enter, but must quarantine in a hotel. Different requirements apply for arrivals into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
People must take a Covid-19 test and get a negative result during the three days before they travel, and book a managed quarantine hotel themselves. From 23 April, visitors who have been in or transited through India in the previous 10 days have been banned from entering the UK.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced a suspension of flights from India from 11 to 28 April.
But even with the suspension lifted, many New Zealanders have struggled to get home.
A managed isolation and hotel quarantine spokesperson told Radio New Zealand that those who had managed to book flights might not necessarily make it home as planned.
“It is highly likely that many of these returnees will not arrive in New Zealand because of the widespread disruption to flight schedules, particularly from India to destinations where many returnees from there currently transit en route to New Zealand,” the spokesperson said.
• This article was amended on 10 May 2021 to remove a reference to government-chartered and commercial flights from India to New Zealand in April, which was based on information from the website of the New Zealand foreign affairs department. These flights took place in April 2020, not April 2021.