The country’s chief medical officer has warned of the “consequences” of Australia’s travel ban on India.
Professor Paul Kelly addressed his concerns in a letter to Health Minister Greg Hunt, highlighting the risk the ban would have on Australian citizens and permanent residents in COVID-ravaged India as a result of our pause on flights and entry into Australia.
“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,” he wrote in a letter to Mr Hunt tabled in parliament today.
“I consider that these serious implications can be mitigated through having the restriction only temporarily in place, ie a pause, and by ensuring there are categories of exemptions.”
Professor Kelly provided his advice ahead of Friday’s late announcement that all flights would be halted until May 15.
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He said there remained a “significant risk” of spread from Australia’s hotel quarantine system, particularly from arrivals from India.
“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,” he wrote.
“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 15 May 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.”
Professor Kelly noted such a move would be the first time that such a determination had been used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents entering Australia.
He also asked for it to become an offence under the Biosecurity Act for anyone who had been in India in the last 14 days to come back to Australia.
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People who have been in India within the previous fortnight before their intended arrival in Australia will face a $66,600 fine as well as five years’ imprisonment for entering the country.
But Professor Kelly today told Sky News the jail threat was not ordered by him. He said the criminal punishment was a separate part of Australia’s Biosecurity Act, but health authorities had not been asked to advise on that section of the government act.
“Let’s be very clear, we were asked for public health advice on the nature of threat, how long (a measure) was needed, that was the advice given,” he told Sky News.
“We weren’t asked about penalties. I’m an adviser, I don’t make decisions for the government.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also defended the government’s move today, slamming any suggestion it was racist and saying he was making the “hard calls” that have helped save 30,000 Australian lives.
Mr Morrison attacked Labor leader Anthony Albanese for “politicising” the flight ban this morning, arguing it was “heartbreaking” but necessary to pause the repatriation flights.
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“We are deeply, deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in India. But the best way I can get them safely home is by doing what I am doing right now,’’ the Prime Minister told 2GB radio.
Critics including former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane have argued there’s “an inconsistency” in the Indian flight ban given Australia didn’t ban US flights when daily cases were even higher.
That’s prompted Labor to hint the real motivation is racism.
“I have clear advice from the chief medical officer that this is a decision that is supported,” Mr Morrison said.
Health secretary Dr Brendan Murphy told a Senate estimates committee today that the temporary ban was needed to take the pressure off quarantine systems. He said the Howard Springs quarantine centre is at capacity.
“We’ve had more than 50 cases, positive cases nearly all from India and the Territory health system is very concerned about that,” he said.
“So just for a period of time, this is an unprecedented number of positives from one country, it’s just a matter of resetting.”
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