States to help federal government repatriate citizens stuck in India as soon as flight ban ends

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Glenn Campbell/EPA</span>
Photograph: Glenn Campbell/EPA

New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland are likely to accept additional flights of vulnerable Australians fleeing India, with the states stepping in to assist the federal government, which plans three of its own repatriation flights this month.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the three extra state flights on Friday after a national cabinet meeting with state and territory leaders. He also declared the controversial policy banning Australians stranded in India from returning home would remain in place until 15 May as scheduled.

Morrison said he wanted to thank Australians of Indian descent “for their patience” and “understanding” while hinting he was open to further restricting inbound travellers down the track.

Once the India flight ban lapses on 15 May, the federal government would “very closely” monitor Covid infection rates among travellers from “sensitive third-country transit points”, including Sri Lanka, Morrison said. “All of this is about sensibly preventing a third wave of Covid-19 here in Australia.”

Related: Scott Morrison says India flights won’t resume before 15 May but medevacs possible

Morrison spoke to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, later on Friday, assuring him the oxygen equipment and ventilators sent over was just an initial package of support, leaving the door open to Australia providing further aid.

The pair also discussed working together to improve access to Covid-19 vaccines, including through World Trade Organization processes, following the United States’ reversal of its long-held opposition to waiving intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines.

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The federal government will begin repatriating Australians stranded in India as soon as its travel ban ends on 15 May, with evacuated citizens and permanent residents to quarantine at Howard Springs near Darwin.

An estimated 9,000 Australians who are stuck in India wish to return home, with about 900 classed as vulnerable.

Morrison told reporters earlier on Friday the federal government expected to arrange three repatriation flights from India between 15 May and the end of the month, “bringing back the most urgent of cases”.

After the national cabinet meeting, Morrison said his government had invited the states and territories to participate in receiving additional “facilitated commercial flights”.

“I was very pleased to have the initial response straightaway from NSW, as well as Victoria and Queensland, who indicated they would be responding positively to that invitation,” Morrison said, while cautioning the details were yet to be finalised. “South Australia is also considering it very favourably.”

Morrison said the charter flights would be focused on the 900 people in India classed as vulnerable. He has asked the foreign affairs department to review the registrations of Australians wishing to return from India to ensure the list was current.

The charter flights will be staffed by Australian crews and passengers will undergo rapid antigen testing prior to departure to “mitigate the risk of potentially higher rates of infection presenting on arrival in Australia”, Morrison said.

Each of the planned six flights this month could carry about 150 people.

The prime minister confirmed that the government would insist on any Australians being repatriated first test negative to a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction test and the rapid antigen test.

Asked on Friday afternoon whether he was comfortable leaving vulnerable Covid patients in India, Morrison said Australia was “not alone in that requirement that we don’t uplift passengers coming into our country who are infected”.

He also suggested Australian consular officials could “assist with medevac and private insurance arrangements and other arrangements”.

He briefed state and territory leaders after the government finessed the details at a meeting of the cabinet’s national security committee late on Thursday. After the much-vaunted “war footing” over the vaccination rollout, Morrison confirmed the national cabinet meetings with state and territory leaders will now return to a monthly basis.

On Friday, the federal court published more details about a 73-year-old man, Gary Newman, who has launched a legal challenge against the India travel ban.

Newman travelled to India in March 2020 to visit friends, intending to stay for the 180 days permitted by his visa, but has remained in Bangalore due to India stopping regular passenger flights to Australia throughout 2020.

In November, he booked to fly to Melbourne via Abu Dhabi after flights resumed, but his flight was cancelled by Etihad.

According to a statement from his lawyer, Michael Bradley, Newman is “at a high risk of suffering severe illness or death if he contracts Covid-19” due to his age, and has not left his residence for 12 days for fear of contracting it.

In Newcastle on Friday morning, the prime minister defended the controversial travel ban – which criminalises the return of anyone who had been in India in the previous two weeks – but confirmed it would end as scheduled on 15 May.

“It was the smart, sensible, wise and compassionate thing to do to put the pause in place, to ensure that it was done in a way that we would have the right effect so we would be able to safely resume repatriation flights,” Morrison said.

India is enduring a deadly second Covid wave that has overwhelmed hospitals and left thousands dead.

Australian citizens and permanent residents returning from the country on federal government-arranged flights will be quarantined at the Howard Springs facility – a former mining camp just outside Darwin.

Related: NSW records no local Covid cases as search continues for source of infection

By next Saturday the facility – which is being expanded to take up to 2,000 travellers a fortnight – is expected to be close to empty.

The government has argued that infection rates in quarantine facilities, particularly Howard Springs, were up to seven times higher than its target of 2% and a “temporary pause” on flights from India was needed to give authorities time to deal with the caseload already in the country.

The government has faced intense pressure to help Australians stranded in India, including from former cricketer-turned-commentator Michael Slater, who told the prime minister on social media he had “blood on your hands”. “Take your private jet and come and witness dead bodies on the street,” Slater said this week.

The government’s decision to criminalise travel from India, threatening huge fines and jail sentences, attracted particular fury.

On Thursday, India broke global records, reporting 412,784 new cases and 3,980 deaths. But experts believe the true extent of the outbreak is under-reported and the real toll is significantly higher.

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