The first repatriation flight carrying stranded 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.
Around 150 Australians are planned to board the Qantas 787 Dreamliner, flight QF112, from Delhi before 9pm local time tonight.
However, the number of returned Australians could drop significantly, due to the government’s requirement to present a negative rapid antigen COVID-19 test prior to boarding.
Those who are allowed to board the flight will land in the Northern Territory around 10am local time on Saturday morning, where they will then 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.