Almost half the Australians booked on India repatriation flight barred after Covid tests

·5 min read
Photograph: Andrew Barker/Alamy
Photograph: Andrew Barker/Alamy

Almost half the Australians due to fly home on the first post-pause repatriation flight out of India have been thrown off the passenger list after they either tested positive to Covid-19 or were deemed close contacts of cases.

Guardian Australia has confirmed that of the 150 vulnerable Australians booked to take the first repatriation flight home from India when the travel ban expires, more than 40 have tested positive to Covid-19. The number who will be unable to fly rises to more than 70 when you factor in the close contacts of those who have tested positive.

The flight is due to leave Delhi after midnight and travel to the Northern Territory where repatriated Australians will quarantine at the Howard Springs facility.

These numbers come from the first Covid test, which is administered 48 hours before flying. There is a second test administered eight hours before flying (later this afternoon), meaning it’s possible that more than 70 people will be barred from the flight.

 Related: Guardian Essential poll: Australians divided over government’s ban on travel from India 

Other Australians will not be substituted onto the flight because of the strict processes to prepare for the repatriation flights (to gather at a hotel for a period and test negative before flying).

About 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents have registered with the government as wanting to return from India. About 1,000 of these people have been deemed vulnerable.

Melbourne man Sunny had booked on the flight with his elderly mother, but he has tested positive for the virus.

He has been trying to contact Dfat but has not been able to.

“We just want to know what is going on,” Sunny told the ABC on Friday.

Sunny and his mother have been stuck in India since last May after facing multiple flight cancellations.

“If I die the Australian government will be responsible.”

Australia’s high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, said he was disappointed those who tested positive won’t be able to get on the flight.

“My team has worked hard across India to get them bookings on this flight because they are vulnerable,” he told the ABC.

“Regrettably those people will have to return home and deal with the Covid that they have, or continue to isolate to prove that they don’t have Covid.

“Until such time that they test negative they won’t be able to fly on one of these facilitated flights.”

Watch: Australia faces criticism over India travel ban

The ban on flights from India, and the government directive that anyone arriving in Australia from India via a third country faces jail and fines, expires at midnight on Friday.

The opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the situation for those told they cannot board Saturday’s flight was “beyond heartbreaking”.

“This flight was meant to bring home our most vulnerable and it is deeply troubling that so many have contracted Covid while waiting for the Morrison government to act to bring them home,” Wong said.

“We’ve been saying for months the longer stranded Australians had to wait, the more perilous the situation they’re in would become, and unfortunately that’s exactly what is unfolding in India.”

Amnesty International said the situation was “sadly not surprising” and “entirely a situation of the Morrison government’s making”.

“Refusing repatriation is lazy policy-making – it’s much easier to leave stranded Australians behind in India than it is to do the heavy lifting to make it safe for them to come home. The prime minister is taking the easy way out,” Amnesty’s Joel MacKay said.

“You can only imagine the heartbreak if you’re lucky enough to be allocated to one of the very few flights back to your home country, only to find that testing positive to Covid throws you on the mercy of a health system utterly failing under the weight of a pandemic out of control.”

Guardian Australia understands that a decision to resume direct commercial flights from India, including the once-weekly Air India service into Sydney, is still being reviewed.

“Australians will be able to fly from India to Australia via a third country once the health directive lifts, however, there are a range of other countries that continue to have travel bans in place in relation to travel from India,” an infrastructure department spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Indian Premier League contingent could return home in the coming days, with cricket administrators hopeful of getting the green light from the federal government.

The majority of the 38-strong group of IPL players, coaches and commentators are still in the Maldives, having departed India last Thursday on a charter flight.

Earlier, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the controversial weeks-long “pause” had worked.

Active cases of Covid-19 in hotel quarantine have dropped by more than 40% over the past few weeks.

In the Northern Territory, where the first repatriation flights from India will land, the number of active cases has fallen from 53 to four.

“The pause gave our quarantine system much-needed breathing space to minimise the risk of Covid-19 getting out of quarantine into the community and having a third wave here,” Morrison said.

“It’s all about keeping Australians safe and ensuring we can keep living the way we are in Australia, which is like few other countries in the world today.”

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, insists the quarantine system will be able to cope when the travel ban lifts and flights from India resume.

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