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India repatriation flight to return to Australia half empty

written by Hannah Dowling | May 14, 2021
VH-ZNE, named ‘Skippy’, takes off from Sydney packed with medical supplies for India (DFAT)

Nearly half of the 150 people booked to return to Australia from India on the first repatriation flight since last month’s flight ban was introduced will now no longer be able to board the plane.

As a part of the agreement to undo ban on flights from India, due to lift at midnight on Friday night, passengers must complete two COVID-19 tests in the two days prior to boarding – one PCR test and one rapid antigen test.

Anyone who presents a positive COVID-19 result will be refused entry into Australia, as too will their close contacts, should any also booked on the flight.

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According to a report by the ABC, over 40 people booked on tonight’s flight out of India returned a positive COVID result. Including their close contacts, now over 70 people originally scheduled to fly back to Australia will no longer be permitted to board.

All 70 people will remain in India for treatment and enter self-isolation. They will be given the opportunity to catch future repatriation flights so long as they no longer test positive for COVID, according to Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell.

Notably, at this point in time, only the first of two pre-flight COVID test results have been returned, meaning more people could still be turned away from boarding.

The first repatriation flight carrying Australians in India back home is set to depart on Friday, after the federal government lifts its temporary ban on all flights from the country at midnight.

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Those who are allowed to board the Qantas 787 Dreamliner, flight QF112, will depart Delhi before 9pm local time tonight, landing in the Northern Territory around 10am local time on Saturday morning.

There, all passengers will complete their 14-day quarantine at the Howard Springs quarantine facility.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed that the Qantas aircraft, VH-ZNE, took off from Sydney on Friday morning, carrying crucial ventilators and medical supplies, headed for India.

The aircraft will make a pit-stop in Darwin, before continuing on to Delhi, and is due to land just after 6pm local time tonight.

It comes as India continues to battle its horrific second wave of COVID infections, which has seen more than 360,000 new cases in the last 24 hours alone, and overrun hospitals struggling to provide oxygen to patients. India’s total death toll is now nearing 260,000.

Despite the requirement for pre-departure testing, health authorities at the Howard Springs quarantine facility are preparing to handle cases of the mutated COVID-19 strain currently spreading in India.

Late last month, the federal government introduced a temporary ban on all flights from India, halting eight planned repatriations, due to the rapid spread of coronavirus in the country.

The government later made it a formal crime for anyone to attempt the trip, punishable with a $66,000 fine.

One week later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that repatriation flights from India would resume once the temporary ban expires on 15 May, and said that as many as six repatriation flights could take place by the end of the month.

At that time, the PM announced that the first three flights would take place on 15, 23 and 30 May, and would be flown direct to Darwin to undergo two-weeks quarantine at its Howard Springs quarantine facility.

The PM said it would first target the 900 “most vulnerable” Australians stuck in India.

“The original decision to put in place that biosecurity order until the 15th of May has proved very effective and it will run its full course until that time without any change,” PM Morrison said at that time.

“What we will be doing is receiving our first repatriation flight into the Northern Territory as part of the charter arrangements we have … to bring back those first people from India at that time.

“The challenge we have had with arrivals from India is the higher incidence of infections and the stress that was placing on the quarantine system.”

Later, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would be “pleased” to accept passengers from India, while Victoria, SA and Queensland were also said to be considering helping with the load.

The move to stop repatriating expats in India was a blow to the more than 9,000 in the country who are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return.

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