Eight repatriations from India have been cancelled after Australia announced it would pause all flights from the country until 15 May.
The move will be a huge blow to the more than 9,000 ex-pats in India who are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return – with 650 of those classed as vulnerable.
It comes as the country battles with a horrific second wave of COVID, which has seen more than 320,000 cases in the past 24 hours and overrun hospitals struggling to provide oxygen to patients. India’s total death toll is now nearing 200,000.
The ban will most notably affect two government-supplemented Qantas flights, QF112, due to depart from Chennai and Delhi to Darwin on 4 and 5 May. It will also affect commercial flights transiting through Doha, Singapore, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday afternoon insisted the ban would be temporary.
“These are Australians and Australian residents who need our help and we intend to make sure we are able to restore flights, particularly the repatriation flights, and that those repatriating flights focus on the most vulnerable,” PM Morrison said.
“We don’t think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off, as some seem to suggest. That’s not what my government is going to do.”
When the flights do resume, all passengers will be required to return both a negative COVID nasal swab and a negative rapid antigen test before departure.
That stricter protocol follows WA Premier McGowan questioning how returned travellers from India are arriving COVID-positive despite seemingly having returned a negative result before departure.
“If the test is not accurate or a bit dodgy that is impinging the integrity of the system,” he said.
The suspension and new rules were signed off by the national security committee of cabinet and will affect high-profile Australians in India such as cricket stars David Warner, Steve Smith and Pat Cummins.
Australia will also send equipment to India including 500 non-invasive ventilators, 1 million surgical masks, 500,000 P2 and N95 masks, 100,000 surgical gowns, 100,000 goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves and 20,000 face shields.
“India is literally gasping for oxygen,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday. “And while we can assist with the national medical stockpile, their particular request is for assistance with regards to the physical supply of oxygen.
“We are in a position to be able to supply non-invasive ventilators. We are in a strong position on that front because we won’t need them at this point in time.”
NSW is currently taking the vast bulk of returned citizens, with Sydney quarantine hotels now accepting 3,000 entrants per week. The next highest is Queensland, taking 1,000.
The news comes after Australia’s arrival caps in February returned to their previously higher December 2020 levels, which were cut at the start of 2021 following a second COVID cluster in Sydney.
The January temporary cuts formed part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, and also included a provision for passengers to wear masks on all domestic and international flights; for hotel staff to be tested daily and for ex-pats to require a negative result before boarding a repatriation flight.
Arrival caps were introduced in July and sat at 4,000, before increasing to 6,500 at the end of 2020 and then decreasing to just over 4,000 in January 2021.