India’s COVID crisis has brought Australia’s hotel quarantine system its “largest positivity rate” of cases since the start of the pandemic, Health Minister Greg Hunt says.
He used the data to reiterate controversial border restrictions and threat of jail imposed by the federal government were about virus risk – not racism.
The Morrison government faced another bruising day of criticism on Monday for its decision to threaten five years’ prison or $66,000 fines for anyone returning to Australia after having recently been in India, with friends and foes alike slamming the extraordinary decision.
The latest to slam the decision was former Australian cricket opener Michael Slater, who accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of having blood on his hands.
Slater’s overnight Twitter tirade came after news the Indian Premier League’s biosecurity bubble has been breached by multiple COVID-19 cases, including two teammates of Australia’s vice-captain Pat Cummins, who is in isolation.
“If our government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home. It’s a disgrace!!,” tweeted Slater, who has reportedly made it to the Maldives, where he is waiting to come home.
“Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this.”
“Those who think this is a money exercise. Well forget it,” he tweeted a few hours later.
“This is what I do for a living and I have not made a penny having left early. So please stop the abuse and think of the thousands dying in India each day. It’s called empathy. If only our government had some!”
Unlikely allies as varied as the Greens and Labor, conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt and even government senator Matt Canavan all lined up to blast the decision to effectively strand 9000 Aussies – including 650 listed as vulnerable – in the world’s biggest COVID hotspot until May 15.
‘A very steep trend’
But Mr Hunt and Mr Morrison pushed back on Monday, stressing the decision was made on health grounds, and to ease pressure on hotel quarantine.
“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,” Mr Hunt said, of the number of returning travellers from India who had tested positive for COVID.
He called it an “agonising” decision to take the drastic action, but said “a very steep increasing trend” of cases had forced the government’s hand.
The Health Minister 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,” Mr Hunt said.
“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.”
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.
“This is being done to prevent against a third wave from the greatest number of cases the world has seen in any one country,” he said.
On Sydney’s 2GB radio, Mr Morrison said the possible jail and fine penalties would be “used appropriately and responsibly”, adding that no one had been jailed for COVID offences under the Biosecurity Act despite its rules being in place for more than a year.
“This is another very difficult decision. I feel terribly for the Indian community. I want to get those repatriation flights running safely again, and these are the things we have to do to ensure I can do that,” the PM said.
“I want to ensure that we ready our facilities and our systems and our testing arrangements to ensure we can bring more Indian Australians home.”
Mr Morrison said the jail and fines were enacted for India, while they were not for arrivals from Papua New Guinea, because of concerns that people might travel to “third countries” to then transit on to Australia.
Unlikely allies oppose India decision
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, a trained lawyer, said it was the government’s “strong, clear, absolute belief” that the decision was legal.
Still, it was a move met with outrage across the political spectrum.
LNP senator and former minister Matt Canavan tweeted the government “should be helping Aussies in India return not jailing them”.
Institute of Public Affairs 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.
Former Labor leader Bill Shorten claimed the government was “choosing to turn this into their political Tampa moment, where they’re seeking to show they’re tough on borders”.
“I’m appalled … this government is losing its soul here,” he said.