CANBERRA, Australia: Australian citizens returning home from India could face up to five years in jail and fines after the government made the journey temporarily illegal.
The health ministry said the ruling had been made “based on the proportion of people in quarantine who have acquired a Covid-19 infection in India”.
Earlier this week, Australia banned all flights from India.
There are an estimated 9,000 Australians in India, 600 of whom are classed as vulnerable.
This will be the first time Australians have been criminalised for returning to their country, Australian media report. Health experts said the government’s move was disproportionate to the threat posed by those returning from India.
“Our families are quite literally dying in India overseas… to have absolutely no way of getting them out – this is abandonment,” GP and health commentator Dr Vyom Sharmer said.
From Monday, anyone who has been in India within 14 days of their intended arrival date in Australia will be banned from entering the country.
Failing to comply with the new ruling could result in a five-year jail sentence, an A$66,000 (£37,000) fine, or both. The decision will be reviewed on 15 May, the health ministry said.
“The government does not make these decisions lightly,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said in the statement.
“However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.”
As virus cases surge in countries such as India, where daily cases topped 400,000 for the first time on Saturday, there are fears Australia’s quarantine system will buckle with more returning travellers testing positive. While the nation has come close to eliminating local transmission of the virus by closing its international border to non-residents — other than a new travel bubble with New Zealand — occasional cases leak into the community from quarantine hotels.
“The risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of overseas travellers in quarantine in Australia who have acquired a Covid-19 infection in India,” Hunt said.
Australia on Tuesday banned all flights from India until at least May 15, but it was still possible to fly in through a third country. The new measure seeks to close that loophole and will be reviewed on May 15.
The government should be doing more to roll out vaccines and provide a better quarantine system to protect returning citizens, according to the opposition Labour Party.
“We’ve got a vaccine rollout strategy that is run off the rails, we have a quarantine system focused on hotels that were built for tourism, not for medical quarantine,” Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler said Saturday.
“And now we have an India strategy that appears to be based upon chasing headlines, rather than a sober, sensible plan to allow us to lift that ban as soon as we possibly can.”
The nation’s cabinet will focus on repatriating vulnerable Australians from India, with dedicated flights starting as soon as possible after May 15, Hunt said Friday in a press conference.