COVID-19: Australia suspends flights to India, sends face masks, ventilators

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

In Australia's second major action in less than a week, passenger flights to and from Covid-smashed India are to be suspended amid a rampant and deadly coronavirus surge in the populous South Asian nation.

Australia will also provide India with an initial package of supplies this week, including 500 ventilators, 1 million surgical masks, 500,000 sets of PPE, 100,000 goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves and 20,000 face shields.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the situation unfolding in India was a "terrible humanitarian crisis".

He told reporters that Australia recognises that India is suffering a "very significant outbreak" and that Australians with family in India would be "very distressed" at the "heartbreaking" scenes of desperate dying people shown on television and through social media.

The federal cabinet's national security committee on Tuesday decided that direct passenger flights between Australia and India will be paused until May 15. This means two passenger services to Sydney and two repatriation flights to Darwin will be cancelled, affecting 500 people.

Eight flights planned by the Department of Foreign Affairs to return from India will also be suspended.

"We know this is a very difficult time," Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told reporters.

The Prime Minister said the flight ban may be extended beyond May 15, telling reporters in Sydney "it will be reviewed prior to that time" - although he indicated it was to be a temporary measure.

"We don't think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off, as some have suggested," Mr Morrison said.

"We will resume the repatriation flights from India."

Mr Morrison said the decision to temporarily suspend flights was based on medical advice while taking into account humanitarian concerns.

There are more than 9000 Australians and thousands of permanent residents stranded in India. 650 are registered with DFAT as "vulnerable".

India's health system is nothing short of overwhelmed as it faces a skyrocketing wave of a "double mutant" variant of COVID-19 known as B.1.617, reporting on Tuesday about 323,000 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours and almost 3000 deaths.

The official figures were slightly down on what was recorded the previous day, but were still extraordinary. Unofficially, it is feared the real figures are much higher, perhaps five times as high.

India's people are literally gasping for breath. Hospitals desperately need beds and medical supplies and equipment such as oxygen, drugs and ventilators.

Australia has also experienced a spike in the number of returned travellers from India testing positive to COVID-19 in quarantine. One such traveller, who stayed at the Perth Mercure Hotel quarantine facility, led to the just-ended snap three-day Perth and Peel region lockdown in Western Australia.

Another man caught the virus at the hotel and tested positive in Melbourne almost a week after leaving.

No new community cases of COVID-19 were recorded in WA on Tuesday, but there were four new cases in hotel quarantine. All had recently returned from India.

Last week, federal, state and territory leaders, meeting as the national cabinet, agreed to slash passenger numbers on flights from India by 30 per cent and restrict exemptions that allowed people to leave Australia to travel to high-risk countries.

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who enacted the debilitating snap lockdown, supports a suspension on flights to and from India because they are too risky.

"We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, India is the epicentre of death and destruction as we speak. And I don't think there is any need to go to India, I don't," he told reporters in Perth.

"Maybe I am unusual, maybe I am out of step. But I think it's just common sense that you don't leave Australia, which is essentially COVID-free, and go to a country full of Covid and then get sick and want to come home. I don't see the sense in it."

This story Australia suspends flights to India, sends face masks, ventilators first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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