Australia has slammed shut the border to India in the face of the world’s worst COVID outbreak, as the federal government scrambles to send aid and supplies to the terrifying crisis.
“We need to take appropriate steps here in Australia,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday afternoon.
“They are dear friends of Australia and we will stand with them through this crisis.”
The PM said an “initial package” of support, with more to come, would be sent to India as soon as possible. It includes 500 ventilators, 1.5 million face masks, 100,000 pairs of goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves and 20,000 face shields.
It comes after Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan called for the borders to shut, saying India’s “diabolical” situation and the number of returning travellers from the country was putting “extreme pressure” on hotel quarantine systems.
There were more than 352,000 new infections in India on Monday, with more than 2000 deaths. India has had at least 17 million cases of COVID and nearly 200,000 deaths, with some five million new infections this month alone.
Mr Morrison announced on Tuesday that passenger flights from India would be halted immediately, until at least May 15. That will affect two passenger flights scheduled to Sydney, and two repatriation flights to Darwin.
Australia’s national borders are technically closed, but people are allowed to fly out if they are granted exemptions to the travel ban for business or personal reasons.
Mr Morrison said the decision to ban flights entirely from India – an action Australia did not take in the face of outbreaks in Britain and US – was due to a “jump” cases in hotel quarantine of people who had recently been in India.
The PM said there were 90 COVID cases in quarantine nationwide two weeks ago. Last week, it was 143, including a rising proportion from India.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said about 9000 Australians in India had registered with the federal government, including 600 listed as ‘vulnerable’. She said Australia would resume flights when it was safe to do so, and might look to increase the numbers of people returning if possible.
Mr Morrison said a number of Australian cricketers, playing in the Indian Premier League competition, would not be prioritised for returning home, saying they chose to travel there “privately” and were not on a national team tour.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed that of the 32,900 international arrivals into the country in March, some 2000 had Indian citizenship. Indian citizens were the third-biggest group behind Australian citizens and permanent residents (21,000) and New Zealanders (5100). The Indian arrivals figure was 25 per cent higher than in February.
An estimated 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents stranded in India. With the pausing of flights, they are now trapped.
The Morrison Government has failed to provide a national quarantine system. If hotels aren't suitable, they need to build an alternative.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) April 27, 2021
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he supported the government sending aid, but took a veiled shot at cancelling flights.
“An estimated 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents stranded in India. With the pausing of flights, they are now trapped,” he tweeted.
“The Morrison government has failed to provide a national quarantine system. If hotels aren’t suitable, they need to build an alternative.”
‘Astonishing’ Indian crisis
It’s thought reported figures from India might be far higher in reality, due to low testing rates and hospitals being overwhelmed.
Indian hospitals are running out of basic supplies such as oxygen, while huge makeshift crematoriums have been set up to deal with the dead.
“The exponential growth that we have seen in case numbers is really, truly astonishing,” said Maria van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation’s technical lead on COVID-19.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called India’s situation “beyond heartbreaking”, and announced the WHO would send 2600 extra staff to help fight the pandemic.
Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, had earlier called for the federal government to urgently assist.
“It is in all our interests to ensure the spread of COVID-19 in our region is brought under control,” Senator Wong said on Tuesday morning.
“While we must follow the medical advice around border closures, Labor’s thoughts are also with the estimated 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents who are stranded in India. The number who are vulnerable and in need of assistance is only likely to grow as this situation worsens.”
McGowan wants testing boost
A rise in the number of arrivals from India testing positive to COVID in hotel quarantine has prompted state premiers to call for a radical overhaul of the system, including more federal oversight and help.
Mr McGowan earlier criticised the federal government for not putting tighter restrictions on those returning from India.
He claimed that COVID tests for international passengers, which are meant to be conducted before someone boards a plane to Australia, may be “a bit dodgy” in India.
“We obviously have a problem with India. Some of the tests conducted in India either aren’t accurate or aren’t believable and clearly that’s causing some issues here,” Mr McGowan said.
“We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, India is the epicentre of death and destruction as we speak.”
The Premier said that 78 people on a recent flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth had recently been in India. Four of that group have already tested positive to COVID, a number Mr McGowan said he expected to “potentially grow significantly”.
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