The Morrison government is battling a backlash within its own ranks over the controversial decision to criminalize return to Australia from Covid-ravaged India, with Coalition MPs calling the move ‘extreme’ and ‘ brutal”.
Fiona Martin, the Liberal MP for Reid, a Sydney electorate with a large Indian community, told Guardian Australia that the travel ban and related legal penalties were “quite severe”.
“There are a lot of Australians stranded in India that we should get home as a priority,” Martin said, adding that she “hoped” the repatriation flights would start “as soon as possible”.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma also raised concerns.
“There is no doubt that this is an extreme measure and is causing considerable hardship to the Australian Indian community,” he said.
“This can only be justified on the basis of the unprecedented epidemic underway in India and the dramatically increased risk it poses. I am convinced that these restrictions will only be temporary and that enhanced powers will only be used sparingly and as a last resort. “
Sydney-based Berowra member Julian Leeser confirmed he spoke with community leaders over the weekend and raised their concerns “to a series of ministers”.
Queensland National Senator Matt Canavan told ABC the decision was “wrong” because “we have an obligation to help Australians.” Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said: “I am concerned about this decision and especially the precedent it sets to ban Australians from returning home to Australia.”
While declining to speak officially, a number of other Coalition MPs also confirmed that they had raised concerns to ministers regarding both the decision to criminalize return from India and the lack of internal consultation. before the decision is confirmed this weekend.
The decision to fine or imprison Australians returning from India was made by the cabinet national security committee but, sources said, not by the entire cabinet or the governing party hall.
A government official told Guardian Australia that the biosafety powers invoked at the start of the pandemic to deal with the public health crisis – the same powers that underpin India’s controversial resolve – were “an insane level of power. for a single minister ”.
Another MP called this episode a “disaster”. Yet another said the travel ban meant the Coalition would now have to deal with a “significant perception issue with the Indian community”.
The decision to criminalize returns to Australia first emerged as an option under consideration last Friday night and was later confirmed in a press release issued by Health Minister Greg Hunt after midnight.
The government said it made the decision in response to advice from Australia’s chief medical officer. On Monday, the government tabled this opinion from Professor Paul Kelly.
Kelly warned the government that citizens stranded in India faced the prospect of serious illness without health care and the “worst case scenario” of death from Covid under the controversial Australia travel ban.
But given Australia’s “limited” quarantine facilities, Kelly recommended that the government move forward with its decision to suspend arrivals from India until May 15, noting that this would be the first time. that such a determination would be used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents from entering Australia.
The government insists its determination is legal, but experts say it is subject to legal challenge. The decision has also been criticized by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The government cabinet committee on national security will review the controversial decision this week with the national cabinet to consider possible changes on Friday.
But as MPs urge the government to organize emergency repatriation flights, Guardian Australia understands that flights from India will not resume until the current number of infections at the Howard Springs quarantine center based in the NT will not fall to single digits. There are currently 41 people at the facility who have tested positive for Covid, up from 53 a week earlier.
On the last repatriation flight from India before the arrivals ban, one in eight passengers was infected, bringing the infection rate in Howard Springs to 13%, from 0.55% in hotel quarantine.
The state and the territories have agreed on a safe “positivity rate” of 2%.
Howard Springs, which currently has a capacity of 900 people, is being expanded to accommodate up to 2,000 people, with the government hoping the additional capacity can be used for repatriation of people from India by mid -may.