Indian travel pause cuts positive caseload

·3-min read

The pause in flights out of India has dramatically halted the rate of positive COVID-19 cases in quarantine in Australia.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said of the 23,000 arrivals in the past seven days there had been 80 positive cases, or a rate of 0.3 per cent.

"We have dropped from 13 per cent (positive rate) to 0.3 per cent, so that's the significance," Mr Hunt told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.

The Morrison government has been heavily criticised for stranding Australians in India, with many questioning the harshness of the pause and the potential for fines or even jail to be imposed for breaches of biosecurity rules.

But Mr Hunt said the pause was being used to address the challenge of a high case load putting pressure on quarantine facilities.

He said the capacity of Darwin's Howard Springs facility was being tripled and provisions were being put in place to improve testing at points of departure.

"(And) we are looking at systems capacity right across the country," he said.

"We are seeing the pause working."

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the government was looking at measures to strengthen quarantine before lifting the pause, which is due to end on May 15.

Ms Andrews said vaccinating Australians in India was under consideration.

"Everything is being done to ready Australians to come home," she told ABC radio.

Earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied the government's response was racist.

Mr Morrison said Australia's humanitarian support including oxygen, masks and ventilators showed a significant effort to help a nation in crisis.

"India is a great friend of Australia," he told reporters in Townsville.

Australia has ramped up its diplomatic relationship with India in recent years as China grows increasingly assertive in the Indo-Pacific region.

With pressure mounting to repatriate Australians trapped in India's coronavirus nightmare, the government is backing away from its earlier jail threats.

But at the same time the government is facing a Federal Court challenge to its outbound travel ban from the group LibertyWorks, which argues it is a "fundamental breach" of human rights and can't legally be enforced.

The date for the challenge is expected to be known by the end of this week.

There are 9000 Australians in India who want to come home with about 900 now considered vulnerable, up from a previous estimate of 650.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke discussed the government's strategy with Indian community leaders on Wednesday.

He said the pause was "fully consistent with international human rights law" but he understood the concerns within the community and wanted to get repatriation flights going as soon as possible.

"One person (at the roundtable) lost five members of his family back in India," he said.

"That underscores how serious things are overseas."

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the government shifted from a late-night announcement of the penalties last week to ruling out enforcing the law days later.

"This is a shambles. The government should be getting the vaccinations right and it should be getting quarantine right," he told the ABC.

India's official count of cases surpassed 20 million on Tuesday, nearly doubling in the past three months, while the death toll has passed 223,000.

Former Test cricketer Michael Hussey, who is one of about 40 Australians in India for the IPL, has reportedly tested positive.