The Morrison government is expected to begin repatriating Australians stranded in India as soon as its travel ban ends on 15 May, with evacuated citizens and permanent residents to quarantine at Howard Springs near Darwin.
Foreign minister Marise Payne told reporters in London on Thursday night that the government is not expecting to extend the ban.
“Based on the advice that we have at this point, we fully expect it not to be extended beyond that date,” she said.
“We intend for facilitated flights to resume beyond that. My department has been working with counterparts in the airlines and with counterparts on the ground in India throughout this entire process with that view in mind.”
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, is expected to announce details of the plan on Friday, when national cabinet – comprising Morrison and state and territory leaders – will discuss the repatriation effort on Friday.
An estimated 9,000 Australians are currently stuck in India, which is enduring a deadly second Covid wave that has overwhelmed hospitals and left thousands dead.
Sources say the first government flight will leave Australia for India as soon as the current flight ban lifts on Saturday 15 May. Australian citizens and permanent residents returning from India will quarantine at the Howard Springs facility – a former mining camp just outside Darwin.
By next Saturday, the facility – which is expanding to be able to take up to 2,000 travellers a fortnight – is expected to be close to empty.
The government has argued infection rates in quarantine facilities, particularly Howard Springs, were up to seven times higher than its target of 2% and a “temporary pause” on flights from India was needed to give authorities time to deal with the caseload already in the country.
About 900 of the 9,000 Australians in India are considered vulnerable. The government has suggested any Australians being repatriated will have to first test negative to two tests – both a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and a rapid antigen test.
Travellers will “need two separate negative tests to get on a plane”, the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said on Monday.
The government has faced intense pressure to assist Australians stranded in India, including from former cricketer-turned-commentator Michael Slater, who told the prime minister on social media he had “blood on your hands”. “Take your private jet and come and witness dead bodies on the street,” Slater said this week.
The government’s decision to criminalise travel from India, threatening huge fines and jail sentences, attracted particular fury.
Morrison said the government hadn’t “accentuated that point”. “It was picked up on in the media and they have highlighted that,” he said.
But the penalties were spelled out in a media release from the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, issued late on Friday, which stated: “Failure to comply with an emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 may incur a civil penalty of 300 penalty units, five years’ imprisonment, or both.”
India has been ravaged by a rampant second wave of Covid infections. On Thursday, it broke global records, reporting 412,784 new cases and 3,980 deaths. But experts believe the true extent of the outbreak is under-reported and the real toll significantly higher.
K Vijay Raghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, conceded health officials had underestimated the “ferocity” of the second wave and cautioned “a phase three is inevitable”.