The federal government appears poised to lift the India travel ban next weekend and restart repatriation flights soon after.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said leaders “fully expect” the ban to end on May 15 and the federal cabinet’s national security committee spent Thursday afternoon discussing a plan to restart repatriation flights from that date.
Anyone who has been in India in the past 14 days is currently banned from entering Australia and breaches are punishable under the Biosecurity Act by fines of up to $66,000 or five years’ jail.
Ms Payne, speaking in London on the sidelines of Australia’s guest involvement in a meeting of G7 foreign ministers, said her department was working with airlines and Indian counterparts on the ground.
She met virtually with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday evening (Tuesday morning AEST) but said although the travel ban was raised, the Indian minister did not ask Australia to lift it.
“The operation of that temporary pause under the (Biosecurity) Act automatically expires at the beginning of the 15th of May,” she told reporters.
“And based on the advice that we have at this point, we fully expect it not to be extended beyond that date and 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.”
Dr Jaishankar, who pulled out of in-person meetings at the gathering after members of his country’s delegation tested positive for COVID-19, made no mention of the ban when posting about the meeting on Twitter.
“Appreciate the support from Australia on the current situation,” he said.
“Discussed the Indo-Pacific and agreed to further strengthen our many convergences.”
Amid tough questioning from journalists, Ms Payne denied she was “embarrassed” or felt “shame” to be speaking with her Indian counterpart in the midst of such a policy.
The controversial ban has left more than 9000 Australians, , around 900 classed as ‘vulnerable’, stranded in India as the country battles a devastating COVID-19 outbreak that has seen hospitals run out of oxygen and bodies burned in the streets.
It has been criticised by Indian community leaders, human rights groups and the UN and challenged in the Federal Court, with more lawsuits looking likely.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his ministers have insisted it’s necessary to protect Australia from the coronavirus and ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system.
He has also assured Australians there was “pretty much zero” chance of any Australian being fined or jailed as a result of the ban, sparking questions from Labor about why the criminalisation was necessary in the first place.
The expansion of the Commonwealth-run Howard Springs quarantine facility appears key to plans to get Australians home from India, amid an expansion from 850 beds to 2000.