Scott Morrison has confirmed repatriation flights from India will not resume until after 15 May, but the prime minister says there is capacity for medevacs from the country in emergencies.
Ahead of a meeting of the national security committee of cabinet on Thursday afternoon, the prime minister said he would not make any commitment to a date when repatriation flights from India would resume, but he said he was “very confident” flights would be restored after the travel ban expires on 15 May.
About 900 of the 9,000 Australians stranded in India are considered vulnerable, but the government has been signalling this week that any Australians being repatriated will have to first test negative to two tests – both a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result and a rapid antigen test.
On Monday, the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, confirmed that travellers will “need two separate negative tests to get on a plane”.
Amid mounting pressure over its hardline approach, including from within Coalition ranks, members of the Indian community have called on the government to urgently evacuate vulnerable Australians amid the country’s worsening Covid crisis.
The founder of Sikh charity Turbans 4 Australia, Amar Singh, told Guardian Australia earlier this week he would be calling for urgent government action. “People will die. There is no other way. If you are in India now and have to be taken to hospital, there is no oxygen, there are no beds,” Singh told Guardian Australia.
Morrison has also been blasted by Michael Slater, the former cricketer and now sports commentator. Slater declared after the travel ban was imposed Morrison would have “blood on his hands”.
Slater has continued to excoriate Morrison on social media. “Amazing to smoke out the PM on a matter that is a human crisis. The panic, the fear of every Australian in India is real!! How about you take your private jet and come and witness dead bodies on the street!”
Government frontbencher David Littleproud declared on Thursday morning Slater was acting like a “spoiled brat” and needed to “get over himself”. Morrison said he had not had a direct conversation with the former test cricketer because he was busy managing the pandemic, but he understood why Slater had “deep feelings” for the people of India and disagreed with his decision.
Morrison told 3AW in Melbourne on Thursday while repatriation flights were unlikely to resume before mid-month, “there is the capability for medevacs” because exemptions were built into the biosecurity order creating the travel ban.
That ban is currently subject to legal challenge, with a case hearing in the federal court on Thursday morning. Morrison declined to comment on the basis it was before the court. The first two grounds of the challenge will be heard substantively on Monday.
The prime minister said medical evacuations were always possible. “Those arrangements are always in place when we have situations like this, but we don’t have any of those cases.
“Barry O’Farrell is the high commissioner [in India] and he monitors all this very carefully and if there are serious issues we manage those through the high commissioner and our consular offices – that is not a new arrangement.”
But when asked by the ABC on Wednesday how many Australians were currently in Indian hospitals with Covid-19, O’Farrell said he didn’t know. “We do not collect those figures”.
O’Farrell says the high commission asked “those who are affected by Covid to let us know, to register with us, and to make sure that we know they are getting the assistance that they deserve”. The high commissioner said there had only been a couple of contacts thus far.
Morrison will convene the national security cabinet on Thursday afternoon before meeting premiers and chief ministers on Friday.
The prime minister told 3AW the “pause” in travel from India was working. “It was the right decision for Australia’s health and safety, but it was also the right decision to ensure we can sustainably and safely bring Australian citizens, residents and their direct families back from India.”
He said once returns from India started, people would spend their quarantine in the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. Morrison signalled it was possible some would be quarantined in New South Wales.
Asked by broadcaster Neil Mitchell whether it had been a mistake to highlight penalties for breaching the travel ban, which include fines and potential jail sentences, Morrison claimed the government hadn’t “accentuated that point”.
The prime minister blamed the media. “It was picked up on in the media and they have highlighted that,” he said.
Penalties accompanying any breach of the travel order were highlighted in the first report of the likely travel ban by the Nine Network last Friday night.
But the penalties were also highlighted in a media release from Hunt issued shortly after midnight last Friday, which stated clearly in the fourth paragraph: “Failure to comply with an emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 may incur a civil penalty of 300 penalty units, five years’ imprisonment, or both.”