The first groups of stranded Australians will come home from India this weekend, when a plane carrying desperately needed medical supplies to the COVID-ravaged country returns.
Australia’s first rescue flight to India departed Sydney at 8.30am on Friday and, after a stopover in Darwin, will arrive in New Delhi at 10.30pm AEST.
On board the flight were much-needed oxygen supplies – 1056 ventilators and 60 oxygen concentrators.
The government’s India travel ban expires at midnight on Friday, paving the way for the resumption of repatriation flights over the weekend.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the controversial measure was necessary to bring Australians home “consistently and sustainably”.
“That is going to happen this weekend because of the very strong action and decisive action we took several weeks ago. That pause has done its job,” he said on Friday.
The plane will return carrying the first group of 9000 Australians stranded in India but, with passengers required to test negative to COVID-19 before boarding, final numbers will be subject to results.
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Active COVID-19 cases in hotel quarantine had dropped from 292 to 171, a government spokesman said.
The government has faced criticism over the ban, which threatened Australians with five years in jail or $66,000 fines for returning from India.
It was the first law in Australia’s history making it illegal for citizens to come home.
India is grappling with the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, having recorded at least 300,000 infections each day since April 21.
As the country’s health system buckled under the caseload, Health Minister Greg Hunt warned India was “literally gasping for oxygen” and Australia would continue to provide support.
“With over the half the world’s cases on a daily basis, the challenge that that nation is facing is unprecedented, and extraordinary,” Mr Hunt said on Monday.
“We’ve made one humanitarian contribution and we’re working with the Indian Government and Indian people on their additional requirements going forward.”
But the ban has caused internal frictions in the Coalition, after two Queensland senators – Matt Canavan and Gerard Rennick – crossed the floor on Thursday to support a motion demanding the government “help Australians in India return, rather than jailing them, and fix our quarantine system rather than leaving our fellow Australians stranded”.
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