Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fended off accusations of racism and having “blood on his hands” as he retreated from a threat to jail Australians trying to escape coronavirus-wracked India.
Australia last week banned all travellers from India, including its own citizens, from entering the country until May 15 due to the surge in COVID-19 cases there, and warned offenders will face the maximum penalties of five years in jail and a 66,000 Australian dollar ($51,122) fine for breaking border rules.
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Morrison said it was “highly unlikely” travellers from India would face the penalties amid pressure to overturn them after the decision to close borders came into force on Monday.
“I don’t think it would be fair to suggest these penalties in their most extreme forms are likely to be placed anywhere but this is a way to ensure we can prevent the virus coming back,” Morrison told local broadcaster Channel Nine on Tuesday.
Morrison said the rules would be used “responsibly and proportionately” but they had to be put in place to ease the pressure on the country’s quarantine systems, which saw a 1,500 percent spike in COVID-19 cases from India since March.
Morrison told reporters in the northern city of Rockhampton that his government “will constantly review” the ban and that he is hoping to resume flights from India after May 15 if the health advice permits.
‘Blood on your hands PM’
The temporary restrictions introduced by Australia, which has one of the toughest biosecurity laws in the world, were excoriated by legislators, expatriates and the Indian diaspora.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said it would approach the government directly with its concerns. Some of Morrison’s most prominent allies slammed the ban, including Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt who said it “stinks of racism”.
Approximately 9,000 Australians are believed to be in India, where hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases are being detected every day and the death toll is soaring.
Among those trapped are some of Australia’s most high-profile sporting stars – cricketers playing in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL).
Former Australia cricket player Michael Slater, who was working in India as a commentator for the IPL, was among those who pilloried Morrison’s decision as a “disgrace”.
“Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this,” he tweeted. “If our Government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home.”
Morrison dismissed Slater’s comments as “absurd”.
Strict border control
Australia has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic through some of the strictest border controls in the world. There is a blanket ban on travel to-and-from the country unless an exemption is secured.
Non-residents are mostly banned from entering. The 5,800 Australians allowed in each week from overseas must complete a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
States have been urging the federal government to set up designated quarantine centres, which could allow more repatriation flights.
Repatriation flights from India may resume as planned by May 15, Morrison said, as the government looks to more than double the capacity in a quarantine facility in the country’s Northern Territory by the middle of this month.
India, which reported more than 300,000 new cases for the 12th-straight day on Monday, is in the midst of a devastating second wave, with hospitals and crematoriums overflowing and supplies of medical oxygen running short.
Australia has reported just over 29,800 cases of COVID-19 and 910 deaths.