Coalition to hold talks with Indian-Australian community leaders

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to hold urgent roundtable with Indo-Australian community leaders as government seeks to allay anger over India’s widely condemned travel ban .

a large jet plane sitting on top of a runway: Photograph: Kevin Frayer / AP

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Kevin Frayer / AP

Amid mounting pressure on his tough approach, including within the ranks of the Coalition, Hawke will meet with community leaders on Wednesday to discuss the ban that prevents 9,000 people, including 650 considered vulnerable, from returning to Australia.

As India’s Covid crisis worsens, the cabinet’s national security committee will meet on Thursday to review the ban that criminalizes the return to Australia of anyone who has been in India in the past 14 days, with the threatens a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Related: Scott Morrison lectured states against sudden border closures – that’s exactly what he’s doing | Katharine Murphy

The government is preparing to resume flights from the Covid-ravaged country when the midnight biosecurity determination put in place by Health Minister Greg Hunt expires on May 15.

However, there are also calls to start repatriation flights earlier once the infection rate at the national quarantine facility in Howard Springs drops below 2%. There are currently 35 positive people at the center, but with just 330 people quarantined there, the infection rate is 10.6%.

The government is also under pressure from Cricket Australia to find a solution allowing Australian cricketers playing in the now canceled Indian Premier League to return home.

The Cabinet National Security Committee will make decisions on Thursday on how best the government will resume flights and how to meet the challenge of bringing up to 9,000 people left in India home, many of whom are likely to be infected with Covid-19.

On one of the last flights to Australia from India before the ban was put in place, one in eight travelers tested positive for Covid.

About 650 of the 9,000 Australians stranded in India are considered vulnerable, but the Morrison government will insist that all repatriated Australians first be negative on two tests – both a Covid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result -19 and a rapid antigen test. .

On Monday, Hawke confirmed that a traveler will “need two separate negative tests to board a plane” as the government seeks to keep tabs on the positive infection rate in the quarantine system.

The government is in the process of finalizing deals with Qantas to be able to put the testing regime in place, but the government appears to be less confident in Air India’s ability to do the same.

This means any vulnerable Australian who tests positive will be left to seek help in India’s overburdened healthcare system, which is on the verge of collapse as it tries to cope with the Covid tragedy of country.

Related: Criminalization of citizens returning from India indicates some are more Australian than others | Tim soutphommasane

Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid called on the government to use all means necessary to bring Australians home to India, especially the 650 registered with the Foreign Office as vulnerable.

“The government, in our opinion, should do everything in its power, charter flights, use our defense force, if necessary, to bring the most vulnerable Australians back to India,” Khorshid said.

“And this approach actually appears to be the exact opposite. It was a real slap in the face for Indian Australians. “

Health official Professor Paul Kelly has warned that the hiatus on flights from India could result in the deaths of Australians in the “worst-case scenario”.

“These [consequences] include the risk of serious illness without access to healthcare, the possibility of Australians being stranded in a transit country and, in the worst case, death. I consider that these serious implications can be mitigated by only putting the restriction in place temporarily, ”Kelly said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday defended the harsh penalties in the Biosafety Act, saying it was “highly unlikely” that they would be used, while stressing the need for the ban to keep Australians safe. .

“This is a decision that was made both in the interests of the safety of Australians now, but also to put us in a stronger position to bring more Australians home safely,” Morrison said. .

“I respectfully disagree with the critics on this one, but the responsibility ends here when it comes to those decisions and I’m going to make decisions that I think will protect Australia from a third wave,” and will help me be able to reach out and bring more Australians home safely from places where they find themselves in difficult situations. “

Morrison, who is also under pressure on the limits of the national quarantine system, said on Tuesday the Commonwealth was evaluating a proposal from the Labor government in Victoria to co-fund a new dedicated quarantine center that would cost between $ 200 million and $ 700 million .

Labor leader Anthony Albanese called on the government to restart charter flights to repatriate Australians to India as soon as possible.

“The government needs to put in place mechanisms so that they can bring Australians home,” Albanese said.

“We should use our assets at our disposal, including our Air Force assets. It’s okay for ministers to take planes to Europe, travel and try to get votes, but we can’t use those assets to bring Australians home?

“We have obligations. Australian passport and Australian citizenship must mean something. And if that doesn’t mean you have the right to enter Australia, what does it mean? “

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