Australia to resume India repatriation flights after backlash

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image caption About 9,000 Australians are stranded in India

Australia will resume repatriation flights for citizens in India after a controversial ban on arrivals from the country ends on 15 May.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced criticism for failing to help citizens trapped in the Covid-ravaged nation.

The ban sparked further anger after the government said Australians seeking to fly home could face jail or fines.

Public outrage forced Mr Morrison to back down this week, and say that jail terms would be “highly unlikely”.

On Friday, he announced the government planned to bring back 900 “vulnerable” Australians during the second half of May on three flights.

Evacuees would be taken to the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, which would be expanded to provide 2,000 beds by next week.

Australia initially justified the ban by arguing the high rate of infections seen in arrivals from India was putting the quarantine system under stress.

But on Friday, Mr Morrison said the ban had worked in the past week to reduce the number of cases in quarantine “back to more manageable levels”.

“[We] will be at a level by 15 May to ensure, that as planned, we will be able to return to having those repatriation flights from India.”

There are about 9,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents in India. Mr Morrison said authorities would make a decision on restarting commercial flights next week. The majority of returning Australians have come home on commercial airlines.

India, suffering the world’s worst wave of Covid, is seeing more than 300,000 cases reported per day and hospitals continue to run out of oxygen.

Australia is among several nations to have sent medical supplies and aid to India as its Covid crisis deepens.

Yet public anger in Australia this week fixated on the notion of the government leaving its citizens in danger, and punishing them if they attempted to return.

Critics – among them Indian-Australians, legal and medical experts – accused the government of abandoning its people.

One prominent voice, cricketer-turned-commentator Michael Slater, wrote a popular tweet accusing the prime minister of having “blood on your hands”.

“Take your private jet and come and witness dead bodies on the street,” Slater wrote.

He was one of about 40 Australians involved in the Indian Premier League cricket competition which was suspended this week.

Cricket Australia announced on Wednesday that the remaining cricketers had been moved out of the country, and would get a chartered flight home after the ban is lifted.

Australia has enjoyed near-zero infection rates due to strict border and quarantine controls, and contact-tracing measures. Sydney recorded two new local cases this week, prompting authorities to reimpose mask-wearing rules and limits on group gatherings.



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