Australians attempting to return from India could face up to five years in jail and heavy fines if they breach a travel ban to return home.
The temporary ban takes effect on Monday and applies to any travellers who have visited India within 14 days of their intended arrival date in Australia.
Indirect routes from India via Doha, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have also been banned as the daily tally of new cases in India nears 400,000.
It is understood to be the first time Australia has banned its own citizens from returning, to the point of there being criminal sanctions for those who make it home.
Some have criticised the penalties as disproportionate.
Senior Labor MP Jason Clare told the ABC the flight ban was “the right call” based on health advice, however criminalising citizens for trying to return was another story
“It’d be a big call to make it a crime for Australians trying to get home … what we should be doing is trying to make it easier.”
“We charted a flight to Wuhan (in China) to get Aussies out and took them to Christmas Island.”
“Why aren’t we doing that now?”
Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director Elaine Pearson went a step further, calling the response “outrageous”
“Australians have a right of return to their own country,” she said.
“The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments for people who are facing desperate conditions and simply trying to return home.”
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young echoed the sentiments on Twitter.
“Jail time and fines for Australians wanting to come home? Seriously? I’m horrified that the Morrison government thinks this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India,” she said.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg conceded the measures were “drastic”, but defended the government’s decision.
“The situation in India is dire; it is very serious,” he said.
“When national cabinet met, it received the most up-to-date briefing from our chief medical officers and their advice is we need to put into place these secure measures with respect to people coming from India to Australia.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the new measures were due to an “unmanageable” number of arrivals from the country who have tested positive to COVID-19.
Breaches of the travel ban could lead to five years’ imprisonment, a $66,000 fine or both.
More than 9000 Australians in India are registered as wanting to return, including 650 people registered as vulnerable.
Labor says it agrees with the ban, with senior MP Jason Clare telling the ABC it was “the right call” and “based on health advice, of people coming from India who had COVID in quarantine”.
“The government does not make these decisions lightly,” Mr Hunt said in a statement.
“However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.”
The so-called “temporary pause” on travel from India will be reviewed on May 15.
The government said the decision was reached following yesterday’s national cabinet meeting, which discussed the Indian situation and the vaccine rollout.
National cabinet agreed that getting vulnerable Australians home from India as soon as possible after the pause was the top priority.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and foreign affairs officials have been putting together a list of high-risk countries for consideration.
National cabinet “noted” Professor Kelly’s assessment that India is the first country to meet the threshold of a high-risk country.
India set another world record on Thursday with more than 379,000 new cases and 3645 deaths.
The death toll continues to surge, now past 200,000, but experts believe figures for both deaths and cases are undercounted.
The outbreak had already prompted Australia to suspend all direct and government-organised repatriation flights until mid May.
Some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, managed to return via Doha.
“National cabinet expressed solidarity with the Indian community both within Australia and overseas,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement on Friday, not fronting the media after the meeting.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the government needed to offer vaccines and financial support for Australian citizens stuck in India.
“Whilst there’s some very high-profile people in India who are getting some publicity, there’s also Australian citizens who are doing it really tough,” he told reporters in Sydney.
Nor did leaders resolve differences over the use of hotel quarantine or setting up new national quarantine camps.
The US is also joining the growing list of countries imposing a ban on most travel from India.
The US restrictions will come into force next Tuesday, local time.
Most non-US citizens will be barred from entry, although, unlike Australia, it won’t affect permanent residents and some relatives of Americans citizens.
Queensland and Western Australia have proposed regional quarantine hubs to guard against hotel leaks causing lockdowns or spreading the virus, while Victoria wants federal backing to host a national site.
Mr Hunt told reporters it was important to have options, but the “first ring of containment” remained hotel quarantine, testing, tracing and vaccination.
Australia has previously agreed to supply ventilators and personal protective equipment to India, to help its strained medical system.