The Morrison government is facing mounting pressure from friends and foes to reverse its decision to criminalise Australians returning home from India, as criticism escalates on legal and humanitarian grounds.
“I don’t understand why the government is choosing to turn this into their political Tampa moment, where they’re seeking to show they’re tough on borders,” Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten said on Monday.
“I’m appalled … this government is losing its soul here.”
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly revealed on Monday morning that his expert medical advice on further restricting travel from India did not specifically call for the five years’ jail or $66,000 fines, which accompanied the government’s decision. In the medical advice, shared with media, Professor Kelly warned shutting off arrivals from India could strand Australian citizens and expose them to serious illness or death.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said it was an “agonising” decision, but that the federal government believed it was the right call. Mr Hunt said the numbers of COVID-positive arrivals from India had exploded in recent weeks, going from 14 in a 28-day period in February to 210 in a similar period in April.
“Across the country, we saw a 1500 per cent increase in cases … from India in two months,” he said on Monday.
“When we saw the increase in the number of cases, and therefore the risk of incursion to our medical system, we had to make decisions.”
Mr Hunt said the decision to halt India flights came amid increased pressure on hotel quarantine.
He said that of COVID cases in hotel quarantine, arrivals from India had made up 8.8 per cent in February before leaping to 56 per cent last week. On two flights from India on April 15 and 17, Mr Hunt said nearly 14 per cent of arrivals were COVID-positive.
Mr Hunt said Australia’s hotel quarantine program was built on the idea of an “expected figure” of COVID-positive arrivals of just 2 per cent.
“We have been able to manage in circumstances where you get increases and decreases in cases. But this is, to the best of my knowledge, the largest positivity rate. And what you see is a very
steep increasing trend,” he said.
He stressed the measure was “temporary” and “due to expire” on May 15, but also did not rule out national cabinet making a different decision when it meets this week.
Mr Hunt also gave a vaccine update, noting that 2.26 million jabs had been given nationwide by Monday afternoon.
This daily infographic provides the total number of vaccine doses administered in Australia as of 2 May 2021. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccine information here: https://t.co/TUKfzVuGVm #COVID19vaccines #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/iBwfZxl8nM
— Australian Government Department of Health (@healthgovau) May 3, 2021
Questions have been raised by citizenship law experts about the jail and fine threat, which is made under the Biosecurity Act, is even legal. Mr Hunt, who is a lawyer, said it was the government’s “strong, clear, absolute belief” that the decision was legal.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied the policy was racist, and said the government hoped to restart flights as soon as possible.
However, the government has come under fire from Labor, the Greens, and even notional allies like the Nationals and the conservative think-tank Institute of Public Affairs.
LNP senator and former minister Matt Canavan tweeted that the government “should be helping Aussies in India return not jailing them”.
IPA policy director Gideon Rozner called it “the most monstrous thing any Australian government has done in my lifetime”.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called the travel restrictions “revolting”, claiming Australians were “ashamed and angry”. She, too, noted that conservatives had spoken up in opposition.
“Even [News Corp columnist] Andrew Bolt has called this for what it is, and questioned playing the race card,” she said.
Mr Shorten said he backed the broader principle to restrict travel from India, but questioned why the government had not done more to boost quarantine capacity for returning travellers in the first place.
“There’s no doubt they have to stop international flights from India, I’ve got no doubt about that, and everyone in Labor has made it very clear we’ve got to follow the medical advice,” he said.
“You have Australian citizens stranded in India, and this government has no meaningful capacity to help repatriate them. The Morrison government has been on notice for COVID since January 2020. In that time, they could have built facilities to be able to adequately quarantine people caught up overseas.”
“They were able to bring people back from the UK and US, but somehow when it comes to India, they’re going to put people in jail for coming back to Australia.”