SYDNEY - The first repatriation flight carrying Australians from coronavirus-hit India after the lifting of a two-week travel ban has arrived in Darwin. The government in Canberra has said the controversial measure has worked, but it has been condemned by rights groups.
Passengers hoping to fly from India home to Australia must return a negative COVID-19 result on two tests before they can board a repatriation flight.
The Qantas plane from Delhi to Australia’s Northern Territory on Saturday was only about half full.
About 80 people were onboard. Others were turned away after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being in close contact with someone who contracted the virus.
Those allowed to return will have to quarantine at a former mining camp at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory for 14 days.
The repatriation flight marks the end of a controversial travel ban. Australians had been threatened with jail or a heavy fine if they returned home from India in breach of biosecurity conditions. The ban was condemned by some politicians, human rights groups and the Indian diaspora as immoral and racist.
Officials said it was necessary because of the high level of coronavirus infections among travelers returning from India, which was putting strain on Australia’s mandatory quarantine hotel system.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the travel ban has been effective.
“That pause has done its job,” he said. “The number of cases that we had up in Howard Springs at that time was over 50. It is now down to four, so they are ready. Also, around the country we saw the number of those with active cases in quarantine fall from 292 to 171. So, the system is ready to respond.”
Up to 1,000 Australians are expected to be repatriated from India on official flights by the end of June. It is estimated that 10,000 Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families are stranded in India.
Australia has taken a hardline approach to the pandemic. It closed its borders to most foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of the virus. A quarantine-free corridor with New Zealand is allowing unrestricted travel between the two neighbors.
Australians wanting to leave the country must have government permission. Citizens and permanent residents can come home but they face mandatory hotel quarantine when they arrive.
About 30,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded in Australia since the pandemic began. More than 900 people have died, according to the health department.
Mass screening has also been a key part in the country’s COVID-19 strategy. More than 17.4 million tests have been carried out for a population of 25 million people.