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Australians Caught Breaching India COVID Travel Ban Could Face Jail

FILE - Arriving passengers are screened by health workers at the airport in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 12, 2021.
FILE - Arriving passengers are screened by health workers at the airport in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 12, 2021.

Australians stuck in India could face up to five years in jail if they breach a COVID-19 travel ban to return home starting early next week. Australia has stopped all direct flights from India in a bid to cut coronavirus cases in its hotel quarantine system.

This is thought to be the first time Australians have been banned from traveling to their own country with the threat of civil penalties and up to five years in prison against people who attempt to make it home despite regulations. Health Minister Greg Hunt said the restriction will take effect Monday.

Starting then, Australian nationals and permanent residents will not be allowed in if they have visited India in the past two weeks.

To enforce the restriction, the government is taking the travel ban a bit further. Any of Australia’s citizens caught breaching the ban could face a fine of up to $50,000. They could also face prison under changes made to Australia’s biosecurity laws.

In the capital, Canberra, the government said the drastic measures were necessary because of what it has described as the “unmanageable” number of citizens arriving in Australia with COVID-19.

The federal government defended the decision, saying that it is about public safety. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Australia’s political leaders have decided that a cautious approach is needed.

“When [the] national cabinet met, they received the most up-to-date briefing from our chief medical officers and their advice is that we need to put in place these secure measures with respect to people coming from India to Australia. So, they are temporary, they will be reviewed on the 15th of May, but they are designed, based on the medical advice, to keep Australians safe,” Frydenberg said.

An estimated 9,000 Australians are stranded in India, critics say, and the Australian government is abandoning them as the pandemic reaches beyond what observers have called a “catastrophe.”

Direct flights between the two nations have been suspended by authorities in Canberra. It has emerged, however, that some passengers — including high-profile cases such as cricketers leaving the Indian Premier League early — have managed to circumvent the ban and reach Australia via Qatar, according to news reports. That loophole will now close beginning Monday.

Australia shut its borders to foreign nationals more than a year ago as part of a strict coronavirus strategy.

Australian citizens and permanent residents, apart from those who have been in India in the past two weeks, are allowed to return, but they face two weeks in mandatory hotel quarantine when they arrive. Quotas apply, though, and thousands of people have been unable to get home.

Australia has managed to contain community transmission of the coronavirus. All reported cases — 21 in total — in the past day were detected in hotel quarantine.

Australia has recorded 29,801 COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began. Nine hundred ten people have died, according to official government figures.