The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, will hold an urgent roundtable with Indian-Australian community leaders, as the government seeks to quell anger about the government’s widely-condemned India travel ban.
Amid mounting pressure over its hardline approach, including from within Coalition ranks, Hawke will meet community leaders on Wednesday to discuss the ban that is blocking 9,000 people, including 650 who are considered vulnerable, from returning to Australia.
As India’s Covid crisis worsens, the national security committee of cabinet will meet on Thursday to review the ban that criminalises the return to Australia of anyone who has been in India in the past 14 days, with the threat of up to five years’ jail.
The government is preparing to resume flights from the Covid-ravaged country when the midnight biosecurity determination put in place by the health minister Greg Hunt expires on 15 May.
However, there are also calls to begin repatriation flights earlier once the infection rate at the national quarantine facility at Howard Springs falls belows 2%. There are currently 35 positive people at the centre, but with only 330 people quarantining there, the infection rate is at 10.6%.
The government is also being pressured by Cricket Australia to come up with a solution to allow Australian cricketers playing in the now-cancelled Indian Premier League to return home.
Cabinet’s national security committee will make decisions on Thursday about how the government can best resume flights and how to approach the challenge of bringing as many as 9,000 people left in India home, many of whom are likely to be infected with Covid-19.
On one of the last flights to Australia from India before the ban was put in place, one in eight travellers tested positive to Covid.
About 650 of the 9,000 Australians stranded in India are considered vulnerable, but the Morrison government will insist that all Australians who are repatriated first test negative to two tests – both a Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test result and a Rapid Antigen test.
On Monday, Hawke confirmed that a traveller will “need two separate negative tests to get on a plane” as the government seeks to keep a lid on the positive infection rate in the quarantine system.
The government is finalising arrangements with Qantas to be able to put the testing regime in place, however the government is understood to be less confident in the ability of Air India to do the same.
This means that any vulnerable Australian who tests positive will be left to seek help in India’s overburdened health system, which is on the brink of collapse as it tries to deal with the country’s Covid tragedy.
The Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid called on the government to use whatever means necessary to bring Australians in India home, particularly the 650 registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs as vulnerable.
“The government, in our view, should be doing everything in its power, chartering flights, using our defence force, if necessary, to bring the most vulnerable of the Australians in India home,” Khorshid said.
“And this approach actually seems to be the exact opposite. This has been a real slap in the face for Indian Australians.”
The chief health officer, Prof Paul Kelly, has warned that the pause on flights from India could result in a “worst case scenario” of Australians dying.
“These [consequences] 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,” Kelly said.
On Tuesday, prime minister Scott Morrison defended the harsh penalties in the Biosecurity Act, saying it was “very unlikely” they would be used, while insisting the ban was necessary to keep Australians safe.
“This is a decision that has been taken both in the interests of keeping Australians safe now but also to put us in a stronger position to safely bring more Australians home,” Morrison said.
“I respectfully disagree with the critics on this one, but the buck stops here when it comes to these decisions and I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave, and help me to be able to reach out and bring more Australians safely home from places where they are in difficult situations.”
Morrison, who is also under pressure over the limits of the national quarantine system, said on Tuesday that the commonwealth was assessing a proposal from the Victorian Labor government to co-fund a new dedicated quarantine facility which would cost between $200m and $700m.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, called on the government to restart charter flights to repatriate Australians in India as soon as possible.
“The government needs to put in place mechanisms so that they can get Australians home,” Albanese said.
“We should be using our assets at our disposal, including our air force assets. It’s all right for ministers to take planes to Europe, to travel around and to try and get votes, but we can’t use those assets to bring Australians home?”
“We have obligations. The Australian passport and Australian citizenship must mean something. And if it doesn’t mean that you have a right to come into Australia, then what does it mean?”