Australia limits flights from India as Covid cases increase in hotel quarantine

Christopher Knaus
·5-min read
Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP
Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Australia will stop almost one-third of flights coming from India, which is in the grips of a severe second wave of the Covid pandemic.

New restrictions will also be introduced for high-risk countries, which will limit outbound travel and require inbound travellers to pass a Covid-19 test prior to boarding.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the measures late Thursday afternoon in an attempt to reduce the risk of transmission from India and other nations dealing with surging Covid-19 cases.

Flights from India will be reduced by 30%. Travellers from high-risk countries, including India, will be required to have a PCR Covid-19 test 72 hours prior to leaving the last port they are in before travelling to Australia.

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The Australian Border Force will also limit departure exemptions for people travelling to high-risk countries like India, allowing travel only for urgent situations. The nations that are to be defined as high-risk will resemble – though not mirror exactly – the United Kingdom’s “red list”, which currently includes India, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Asked whether Australians stuck in India would view the government’s decision as an abandonment, Morrison replied: “It doesn’t reflect that at all. It reflects that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that is raging. And Australia has been successful throughout this pandemic, working together with the states and territories, to have very effective border arrangements.”

He said between 10% and 40% of cases being reported in hotel quarantine now were people who were arriving back in Australia from India.

The health department secretary, Brendan Murphy, said the risk of importing the virus from high-risk countries was significant.

“There are many countries in the world – the prime minister was talking about India – that are in very serious situations with Covid and the risk of Covid importation and outbreaks in Australia is ever present,” he said. “We can’t be complacent.”

Earlier, the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, said he would ask the commonwealth to temporarily ban travellers from India following a hotel quarantine outbreak in the state.

The state government said two recent Covid-19 cases were the result of transmission in one of its quarantine hotels, the Mercure hotel in Perth. Two guests were staying in a room opposite a couple who had just returned from India.

Genomic sequencing has shown the transmission occurred in the hotel.

Western Australian premier Mark McGowan plans to advocate for a ban on travellers from India during Thursday’s national cabinet meeting.
Western Australian premier Mark McGowan argued for a temporary ban on travellers from India at national cabinet. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

India is currently battling a severe second wave of Covid-19. It reported 295,041 new infections on Wednesday, the world’s highest daily rise, and 1.6m cases in the past week.

McGowan said 40% of the state’s quarantine cases in the past month involved returned travellers from India, jumping from 11% in the previous month.

The premier planned to take up the potential for a ban during Thursday’s national cabinet meeting.

“With more and more arrivals coming from India, we need to seriously look at temporarily restricting travel of people who have been in or through India,” McGowan said.

“The pre-testing measures ahead of international flights need to be examined.”

But his position was rebuffed by the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who was also dealing with transmission in hotel quarantine.

She said no single country should be targeted.

“I don’t think it is fair or appropriate to distinguish one nation over others,” she said. “Things change, the rates of infections go up and down across the world. Aussies who want to come home should have the right to do that.”

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian: ‘Aussies who want to come home should have the right to do that.’
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian: ‘Aussies who want to come home should have the right to do that.’ Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

McGowan is not alone in calling for such a ban.

The Australian Medical Association’s Northern Territory president, Robert Parker, this week called for travel restrictions after the Howard Springs quarantine facility was hit with its highest number of positive Covid-19 cases since it started taking repatriation flights last year.

Two more cases involving returned travellers from India were recorded at Howard Springs on Wednesday, bringing the total to 18 since the weekend.

The territory’s health minister, Natasha Fyles, said the Indian outbreak would continue to be monitored but said her government had a “humanitarian responsibility” to repatriate vulnerable Australians.

The federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said earlier the decision was one for the chief health officer and national cabinet when it met on Thursday. But he did note Australia’s early decision to close the border with China.

“Scott Morrison took the decision early on to close the border with China and that’s been to Australia’s great benefit,” he said. “We will continue to take that health advice. Decisions about India or other countries are matters for the chief health officer and ultimately for national cabinet.”

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Other nations have either considered or implemented bans, restrictions or travel cautions for India.

The United Kingdom this week added India to its “red list” of countries, banning travel for non-UK and non-Irish citizens to the UK from India. The UK government has faced criticism for acting too slowly to restrict travel from India.

Hong Kong, Pakistan and New Zealand have also enacted temporary bans on travellers from India.

NSW is currently investigating how three returned travellers from two families contracted the South African variant of the virus after staying at the Mercure hotel in Sydney. Authorities believe the transmission occurred in the hotel, because the individuals were tested and cleared after arriving in Australia. NSW is warning that contacts of the three infected individuals have already travelled interstate.

Another 40 returned travellers were staying on the same level of the hotel at the time.

“We have managed to contact 36 of those individuals, a number have gone into other states and territories and those states and territories have been alerted,” the NSW chief medical officer, Kerry Chant, said.

She said they were “urgently escalating” efforts to contact the remaining four people.

Staff potentially exposed will also have to self-isolate.