Australian CMO approves Indian travel ban but warns stranded citizens could die

Government defends move, Taiwan suspends entries from India except its citizens

A healthcare worker carries out Covid-19 testing at a drive-through clinic in Perth, Australia. Perth is on alert after a hotel quarantine security guard and two of his housemates tested positive for Covid-19. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty

A healthcare worker carries out Covid-19 testing at a drive-through clinic in Perth, Australia. Perth is on alert after a hotel quarantine security guard and two of his housemates tested positive for Covid-19. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty

 

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, has warned the government that citizens stranded in India face the prospect of serious illness without healthcare and a “worst-case scenario” of death from Covid-19 under a controversial ban on travel to Australia.

But given Australia’s “limited” quarantine facilities, Prof Kelly recommended the government go ahead with its decision to suspend arrivals from India until May 15th, noting it would be the first time that such a determination had been used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents entering Australia.

The release of the advice comes as the Morrison government defended the controversial travel ban that criminalises returning to Australia from India, imposing a five-year jail term or a fine of 66,600 Australian dollars (€43,000), or both, to those in breach of the rules. The coalition said it was a necessary health measure and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the government would review the suspension as soon as this week.

The Australian Human Rights Commission lambasted the decision, urging lawmakers to immediately review the restrictions. The Commision will approach the government directly with its concerns, it said in a statement.

The hashtag #DictatorScott was trending on Twitter on Monday as Australians reacted to the strict new policy.

“We should be helping Aussies in India return home not jailing them. Let’s fix our quarantine system rather than leave our fellow Australians stranded,” senator Matthew Canavan tweeted.

‘Significant risk’

Prof Kelly’s letter to the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, noted the penalties for breaching the relevant section of the Biosecurity Act but made no specific recommendation on fines and jail time.

Prof Kelly advised there remained a “significant risk” of leakage from Australia’s hotel quarantine system, particularly from arrivals from India. He said there had been high rates of Covid detected in arrivals from India, a high proportion of Australian cases traced back to India and a high proportion of virus “variants of concern” among those cases.

“Each new case identified in quarantine increases the risk of leakage into the Australian community through transmission to quarantine workers or other quarantined returnees and subsequently into the Australian community more broadly,” Prof Kelly’s letter to the government, tabled in parliament on Monday, states.

“Australia’s quarantine and health resources needed to prevent and control Covid-19 introduced into Australia from international arrivals are limited.

“Due to the high proportion of positive cases arising from arrivals from India, I consider a pause until May 15th, 2021, on arrivals from India to be an effective and proportionate measure to maintain the integrity of Australia’s quarantine system. This measure will likely allow the system to recover capacity, which is a critical intervention in preventing and managing the spread of Covid-19 in Australia.”

Prof Kelly said that given the determination was for only a limited time, he believed it met the criteria of being an emergency requirement that was “in place for only as long as necessary”.

‘Serious implications’

But he warned that India remained a “high-risk” country and that with more than 18.3 million positive cases, and more than 204,000 deaths, Australians stranded there were at risk.

“I wish to note the potential consequences for Australian citizens and permanent residents as a result of this pause on flights and entry into Australia,” Prof Kelly said.

“These include the risk of serious illness without access to healthcare, the potential for Australians to be stranded in a transit country, and in a worst-case scenario, deaths. I consider that these serious implications can be mitigated through having the restriction only temporarily in place . . . and by ensuring there are categories of exemptions.”

The exemptions include airline crew, diplomats, defence personnel and members of Australian medical assistance teams.

The government has insisted the travel ban on Australian citizens and residents who have been in India in the past 14 days is legal and necessary. It has flagged it could help 650 vulnerable Australians in India as soon as possible.

“This only needs to be there in place for as long as it needs to be there to keep Australians safe,” Mr Morrison said on Monday.

Mr Hunt said the government had previously implemented similar measures under the Biosecurity Act including in relation to flights from Wuhan in China when the pandemic first broke out in March 2020, and from Papua New Guinea.

He said it had been an “agonising” decision to put in place the determination, but the rate of infection was about seven times the level the hotel quarantine system could safely manage.

He said the number of cases in Australia from returned travellers from India had gone from 14 in February to 38 in March, then jumped to 210 in April.

Last week, the foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the government was exploring ways to help the 650 Australians in India who had registered as vulnerable.

“They are also all over India, literally in every single corner of the country. There is not a significant concentration in one place or another, other than New Delhi, and that does make the process challenging. But we will stay in touch with them as I said, redouble our efforts to do that and provide any support we are able to.”

Western Australia reported three cases over the weekend after a quarantine hotel security guard and two housemates tested positive for Covid-19. The state reported zero local cases on Monday.

The country’s vaccination programme has moved slowly, administering just more than 2 million doses so far, well short of initial government forecasts of 4 million by the end of March.

At its current pace, Australia’s adult population will likely be fully vaccinated by August 2023, according to projections by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The government has cited a global Covid-19 vaccine shortage and health concerns around the AstraZeneca shot, on which Australia’s immunisation programme was based. Australia has imposed age restrictions on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Taiwan suspension

Meanwhile, Taiwan will suspend from Tuesday the entry of people who have been to India over the previous 14 days, health minister Chen Shih-chung said, as the island became the latest to enforce curbs amid surging Covid-19 cases.

The Indian variant of the virus has reached at least 17 countries, including Britain, Iran and Switzerland, spurring several to close their borders to those travelling from India.

India’s tally of infections stood just shy of 20 million on Monday, after it reported more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases for a 12th straight day.

Except for Taiwan citizens, all those who had been in India in the prior 14 days would be kept out, Mr Chen said on Monday, with the restriction taking effect at midnight.

Returning Taiwanese will have to spend 14 days in centralised quarantine facilities, however.

Earlier, deputy economy minister Chen Chern-chyi said the government was considering whether to send an aircraft to evacuate the 150 Taiwanese businesspeople now in India. – Reuters, Guardian