Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reiterated that repatriation flights from India will continue after the temporary ban expires on 15 May.
PM Morrison was able to confirm the plans after a meeting with state premiers, indicating that as many as six flights could take place this month.
Last week, the federal government paused all flights from India, halting eight repatriations, and then made it a formal crime for anyone to attempt the trip, punishable with a $66,000 fine. It’s led to one 73-year-old Australian man in India launching a legal challenge to the decision.
On Friday, after a meeting of the national cabinet, the Prime Minister confirmed that the first three flights – on 15, 23 and 30 May – will go to the Howard Spring quarantine facility.
They will target the 900 most vulnerable Australians and all passengers will undertake a “rapid antigen test”, which it hopes will be more accurate than tests undertaken in India.
Previously, Qantas has used its 787-9 Dreamliners that have a capacity of around 150 passengers each for repatriation purposes.
“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.
“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 ex-pats 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.
The ban most notably affected two government-supplemented Qantas flights, QF112, which were 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.
Earlier this week, barristers acting behalf of an Australian man in India argued in the Federal Court that the ban is both unconstitutional and breaks the crucial Biosecurity Act underpinning Australia’s quarantine response.