Australia’s top doctors and a growing number of federal politicians have voiced outrage at the Morrison government’s refusal to budge on the controversial threats to jail people who return from India.
On Tuesday afternoon, eight members of the parliamentary crossbench united to demand the government drop its jail threats, and to bring stranded Australians home from India.
“Australians in all regions are dismayed at the ad-hoc nature of the Government’s response to COVID-19,” independent MP, Zali Steggall said.
“Leadership is tested in difficult times and it is wrong that the Prime Minister’s response is to abandon Australians overseas. We stand by each other in a time of need.”
There are about 9000 Australians registered as being in India, 650 of them considered vulnerable.
Ms Steggall joined Greens leader Adam Bandt MP and other crossbenchers Helen Haines, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Bob Katter, and Senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff in signing a letter to Mr Morrison. They called on the Coalition to “urgently” repatriate Australians from India, to revoke the public health order threatening jail time, and to set up a “a dedicated surge capacity quarantine facility”.
“We all like to sing the song I still call Australia Home but that doesn’t apply the Australians in India?” Mr Katter said.
“Fair bloody go, they deserve to be able to return home with proper testing and quarantine.”
Senator Patrick called the India ban “entirely inappropriate and likely unconstitutional”, while Mr Bandt said it was “racist” and “possibly illegal”. He said the Greens would move a motion in the Senate next week, demanding it be overturned.
AMA warns of ‘distress’
It came shortly after the Australian Medical Association urged the government to immediately reverse its action.
AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid made an impassioned plea to Mr Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday to find a way to repatriate Australians caught in the middle of the deadly pandemic.
“Members of our Indian medical community … have been distressed beyond words with this announcement, on top of the distress they have already experienced with friends and family being exposed to a terrible risk occurring in India,” he said.
India is only the second country after the US to top 20 million cases of the coronavirus.
Its official count reached that on Tuesday, having nearly doubled in the past three months, while deaths have passed 220,000.
On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 357,229 new cases in the past 24 hours and 3449 deaths.
The federal government has imposed the ban on Indian returnees on the advice of chief medical officer Paul Kelly, who has conceded that some stranded Australians could die while unable to get on flights home.
Dr Khorshid said the threat of criminal sanctions – fines of up to $66,000 and five years’ jail – was a “slap in the face” for Indian- Australians.
“The Australian government should take all necessary steps to get the most vulnerable home, including chartering commercial aircraft or using defence force capability as needed, and commercial flights should resume at the end of the current pause to allow others safe passage home,” he said.
“This approach actually seems to be exact opposite. It has been a real slap in the face for Indian-Australians, Australians and India, and to their relatives, family and friends here in Australia.”
Dr Khorshid said the pause in flights from India to Australia until at least May 15 was warranted as it would help manage the risk associated with large numbers of infectious people entering the “fragile” hotel quarantine system.
“However, given the exponential growth in infections in India, expatriate Australians there now face a health risk that requires an Australian government health response.
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PM refuses to back away from India travel ban
The crossbenchers’ and AMA outrage came as Mr Morrison remained steadfast in refusing to back away from the India criminal penalties, despite a torrent of criticism.
However, the government is downplaying its threat to jail or fine people who dodge the flight pause, which is in place until at least May 15.
“The buck stops here when it comes to these decisions. I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave,” Mr Morrison said on Tuesday.
He said the rapid escalation of infected people returning from India put enormous pressure on quarantine but denied it showed the system’s weakness.
Mr Morrison has committed to review the travel pause, while tempering his language on the threats of criminal penalties.
“The likelihood of any sanction, anything like that is extremely remote,” he earlier told the Nine Network.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan is also opposed to the threats.
“I don’t like this precedent that we’re locking Australians out of their own country,” he told Sky News.
The outspoken Queensland LNP member said the government had chartered flights from Wuhan at the onset of the pandemic to bring citizens home but was now refusing to help Australians stranded in India.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said threats to jail or fine returning citizens were appalling.
“Australians must always have the right to come home,” he told the ABC.