Scott Morrison says the ban on travel from India will not be extended beyond May 15, and repatriation flights will begin again as soon as the ban finishes.
The government’s controversial ban, which made it an offence for people to try and re-enter Australia after being in India within the prior 14 days, began on Monday and is due to finish on May 15.
The Prime Minister said the National Security Committee met yesterday and agreed it saw “no need to extend it beyond that date”.
The announcement of rescue flights comes as India reported another record daily rise in coronavirus cases on Friday, bringing its total cases for the week to 1.57 million.
India’s rampant COVID second wave now stand at a total of 21.49 million cases, with infections spreading from overcrowded cities to remote rural villages that are home to nearly 70% of the 1.3 billion population.
Direct commercial flights from India are unlikely to resume immediately though, Mr Morrison said, although a decision will be made next week.
Instead, the government hopes to facilitate six repatriation flights over the next month to bring up to 1000 vulnerable Australians home.
Mr Morrison said Victoria, NSW and Queensland all indicated they would accept repatriated citizens from India during a National Cabinet meeting on Friday.
Those flights would add to three already bound for the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory over the next month.
“By arranging these returns to Australia through the most secure channel we can provide for, that will mitigate the risk of potentially higher rates of infections,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday.
“[That will] ensure the quarantine system will continue to be able to receive continued repatriation flights in the weeks and months ahead.”
But it could be months before the more than 9000 Australian citizens stranded in India are all able to return home, while access to the flights will also require Australians to return two negative coronavirus tests.
The first flight is scheduled for May 15 and while it is expected each flight can accomodate up to 150 people, families will not be separated.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now reviewing a list of 900 stranded citizens it previously classified as vulnerable before determining a priority list and assigning seats.
“[We’re] bringing back the most urgent of cases,” Mr Morrison said.
Travel ban ‘working’
The travel ban will end days after a legal challenge is due to be heard against it in the Federal Court next week.
A 73-year-old Melbourne man is arguing the orders, made under the Biosecurity Act, are unconstitutional and in breach of an implied freedom to return home.
The government and health authorities have repeatedly said the reason for the ban was partly because of the infection rates at the Howard Springs facility.
Mr Morrison repeatedly reiterated that the ban “was working” on Friday.
“What’s important is that the biosecurity order that we have put in place has been highly effective, it’s doing the job that we needed it to do,” Mr Morrison said.
At one point the rate was 15 per cent, seven times higher than the goal of 2 per cent, creating concern that the system, and potentially Darwin’s hospital, could be overwhelmed if more cases arrived.
But the case numbers have now halved in the facility and are expected to be at zero, or close to, by May 15.
Additionally, the quarantine capacity at Howard Springs has been increased from 850 to 2000.