Australia backs off on jailing arrivals from India

SYDNEY, 4 May 2021:

Australia’s prime minister today said it is “highly unlikely” that travellers from India, including Australians, who enter the country in violation of the travel ban recently imposed by the Oceanic nation will be jailed or fined.

“No one’s going to jail,” Scott Morrison said on Channel Nine’s Today programme.

The prime minister’s remarks came after a controversy broke out over the weekend after the country said violators of the travel ban announced Friday would face penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to A$66,000.

“I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that these penalties in their most extreme forms are likely to be imposed anywhere,” Morrison said.

Last week, Australia banned flights from India until May 15 as a result of the devastating second wave of Covid-19 the Asian country is experiencing.

However, after detecting entries into Australia by other means, for example via Qatar, the country tightened the ban to include any traveller who had been in India in the last 14 days.

The ban and the threat of jail sentences and heavy fines drew criticism from human rights advocates, politicians and the Indian community – which classified them as discriminatory and racist since they were not applied in similar situations on travellers from the US or UK.

The prime minister of Australia, which is among the top 10 countries in the world that have best handled the pandemic, stressed it was a temporary measure and in line with the Biosecurity Act – considered one of the strictest in the world, and implemented to prevent a third wave in Australia.

The Australian government justifies the temporary suspension of flights to the large increase in Covid-19 cases in Australia, where people returning from India account for 85% of those infected in the mandatory quarantine centres.

“We saw the overall level of cases as a proportion in Australia go from around 10% to 56% in just a matter of weeks. So we saw an alarming increase in the infection rate of those travelling from India,” Morrison told public broadcaster ABC.

“What that (the ban) does, it enables us to ensure that we can to recommence those repatriation flights.”

Australia – which began to vaccinate its population against Covid-19 on Feb 21, although the campaign has experienced delays in its rollout – has practically returned to normality, apart from brief and localised lockdowns when new outbreaks are detected.

The country has recorded almost 30,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, including 910 deaths, most of them caused by breaches in protocols at quarantine centres in the city of Melbourne detected in June last year.

Meanwhile, India today surpassed 20 million coronavirus since the start of the pandemic – registering 357,229 new cases in the last 24 hours, while a virulent second wave has strained the country’s healthcare system.

The South Asian country also reported 3,449 deaths in 24 hours, bringing the total number of fatalities to 222,408, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Health – while experts believe actual figures could be significantly higher.

Today’s figures represent a fall in the number of infections for the third consecutive day, after India recorded more than 400,000 cases on Saturday. However, the number of deaths have remained on its upward trend.

India is currently the second most affected country in the world by the coronavirus in terms of caseload, behind the US, which has recorded a total 32.4 million infections, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The second-most populous country in the world has been reeling under a devastating second wave that has overwhelmed its health system, with a shortage of oxygen and beds reported in major cities, including the capital, New Delhi.

Meanwhile, more than 40 countries have started sending aid, including medical equipment, oxygen generators, oxygen cylinders, and concentrators, to India to help it fight the pandemic amid a shortage of oxygen and medicines in hospitals to treat critical patients.

The increase in cases across in the country has been attributed to the people letting their guard down against the coronavirus and the organisation of events with mass gatherings such as huge electoral rallies during several regional elections and the Kumbh Mela, the largest and oldest religious congregation in the world.

The so called Indian “double mutant” or B.1.617 variant, and other strains may also be behind the sudden increase in cases, although for the moment virologists have said there is insufficient data to support this theory.

India relies on its vaccination drive to check the devastation unleashed by the second wave.

It launched on Saturday the next phase of the programme to extend the vaccination drive to everyone over 18.

Until now, only those over the age of 45, frontline workers, and health personnel could get doses of either of the two available vaccines manufactured in the country, namely AstraZeneca’s Covishield and Covaxin from the Indian laboratory Bharat Biotech.

Several regions have announced their inability to go ahead with the new phase due to inadequate doses.

The vaccination rate has been slow since the drive began in January, with some 158 million doses administered so far.

During the last 24 hours, the country administered just 1.7 million vaccines, one of the lowest numbers recorded in recent weeks.