More than 170 unaccompanied children are among the Australians seeking to return from India as it struggles to contain a deadly second wave of Covid-19, officials in Canberra have revealed.
With the Senate’s Covid-19 committee turning its attention to the government’s controversial temporary ban on travellers from India, officials reported there were now about 9,500 Australians who wished to return home from the country – including 950 classed as vulnerable.
The vulnerable include “173 clients registered as under 18 in India outside of a family group – that is, they’re on their own and seeking to return to Australia”, Lynette Wood, a first assistant secretary with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told the hearing.
Qantas doesn’t take unaccompanied minors, meaning their only options to get home are Air India and special repatriation flights, which are not set to resume until after the travel ban ends on 15 May.
Wood said the government was planning repatriation flights into Darwin on 15, 23 and 30 May, with a focus on vulnerable Australians, and they would go to the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
The government also expects a further three repatriation flights to arrive in other state capitals before the end of this month, as announced by Scott Morrison after Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
Each flight is likely to carry about 150 people but the government has not committed to a deadline for rescuing the vulnerable Australians from India – and these facilitated flights will not be open to people who test positive to Covid-19 before departure.
With the Covid-19 committee focusing on the impact of the travel ban, which criminalised the return of anyone who had been in India in the previous two weeks, Australia’s high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, was asked if he was aware of any citizens who had died of the disease while waiting to return home.
The former NSW Liberal premier said Dfat was providing consular assistance to the family of an Australian permanent resident who reportedly had died in India, but local authorities had not yet confirmed the cause.
O’Farrell said with the nightly infection rate in India being “greater than the population of Canberra”, and with reported daily deaths of some 4,000 people, he did not believe “anyone can put hand on heart” and say that Australian citizens or permanent residents were not among the deaths.
Dfat officials revealed that they had considered, this week, whether it was feasible to help vaccinate Australians in India against Covid-19 but decided against it.
O’Farrell said that was due to a range of “legal, logistic and, frankly, government-of-India issues” and noted that Australians were spread throughout the country.
But he said doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in India on an assistance plane this week for the purpose of inoculating Australian diplomatic and consular staff.
“It’s clear why it’s needed to do this for diplomats, because we could not help anyone across India if more of my officers – whether locally engaged or Australian staff – went down with Covid,” O’Farrell said.
The Covid-19 inquiry also heard from Australians stranded in India, including Sunny, who travelled to the country in May 2020 because his father was in a critical condition with no support during India’s coronavirus lockdown.
Sunny’s father died on 1 June, 2020 while Sunny was in hotel quarantine in Delhi. He wants to bring his mother home to Australia with him, but his flights in July 2020 were cancelled due to the Melbourne lockdown.
Sunny argued the Australian government had been “totally insensitive to stranded Australians” after he suffered “11 months of misery”.
Meg, another Australian stranded in India after she travelled there on holiday in January 2020, said she was unable to fly back in October when her Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong was cancelled, and she had not been able to get a seat in the “raffle” of respite or charter flights.
“The daily fear of going out and contracting Covid was with us every day and it still is now, the situation is so bad,” Meg said.
“The Australian government hasn’t provided any kind of emotional support to those stranded in India … Every time I’ve called [the high commission] for help, guidance, the phone would just ring out no matter how many times you call.”
Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, was also asked to explain the circumstances behind the health minister, Greg Hunt, making a declaration under the Biosecurity Act late last Friday night.
“I was requested from the minister to provide him with advice at approximately 7am that morning,” Kelly said.
“Because of the nature of that advice, the complexity of the issues that needed to be addressed, the need for getting this as right as possible, that took us all day and half of the evening.”
Kelly said that “right throughout the pandemic we’ve looked for the least intrusive option”.
But he argued Australia had been “faced with what was a large number of Australians returning from India … and with very high rates of positive” to the point that there was a concern about the potential failure of the quarantine system.
Officials say the expansion in the capacity of the Howard Springs quarantine facility – which takes federal government-facilitated flights – means it will be able to care for 50 Covid-positive cases, up from 25 before.
The Labor chair of the committee, Katy Gallagher, asked whether Kelly accepted the travel ban was linked to quarantine capacity. “Yes it is,” he replied.
Federal Labor and a number of state premiers have been calling on the federal government to take responsibility for quarantine.
After UN officials raised serious concern this week about whether the India travel ban met Australian’s human rights obligations, Dfat confirmed its legal division had been consulted about Hunt’s biosecurity determination last Friday.
Marie-Charlotte McKenna, the acting assistant secretary of the international law branch at Dfat, said Australia “takes its human rights obligations seriously” and had taken these into account in its policy responses to the Covid crisis.