Coronavirus: Australia pauses India flights, rushes out medical supplies

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a suspension on Australia-India flights. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a suspension on Australia-India flights. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Indian-Australian community groups and aid organisations are backing Australia's decision to temporarily suspend all flights to India and send urgent medical supplies.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described as a "terrible humanitarian crisis" India's veritable collapse under a skyrocketing wave of a "double mutant" variant of COVID-19 known as B.1.617.

New coronavirus cases across India ballooned out again on Tuesday to about 323,000 new cases and almost 3000 deaths.

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

Direct passenger flights will be temporarily paused between the two nations until May 15 and an initial shipment of desperately needed medical supplies will be sent this week. As well, diplomatic posts in India will remain open for distressed Australians.

There are more than 9000 Australians and thousands of permanent residents stranded in India. 650 are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as "vulnerable".

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has described them as "trapped" and suffering due to mismanagement of Australia's quarantine response to COVID-19.

But the Prime Minister has promised Australians in India will not be abandoned amid the dangerous situation and the suspension will be reviewed shortly.

"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."

"I don't see this as a problem. I see this as a group of people we are trying to help. I don't see those Australians of Indian heritage as a problem we had to solve ... I am concerned that is how some may have been seeing this."

Two passenger services to Sydney, two repatriation flights to Darwin and eight flights planned by DFAT are affected. Indirect flights through cities like Doha, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have already been paused by their respective governments.

Indian hospitals are desperate for medical supplies and equipment.

Australia is also poised to send India 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.

Australian posts in India will remain staffed by Australian diplomats to continue to provide consular assistance to Australians in distress.

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

"Our posts will also be redoubling their efforts to maintain contact with Australian citizens in India to ensure that they are informed about travel settings, about any changes and about assistance programs."

"That has been part of the work for many months now, but certainly in the current circumstances those efforts will as I said be re-doubled."

Ahead of Tuesday's announcement, India's most senior diplomat in Australia was holding out hope that some travel between the two countries would be allowed to continue.

"We remain very concerned about the welfare of the diaspora, and this includes the Indian nationals," India's Acting High Commissioner P.S. Karthigeyan told The Canberra Times.

"A big part of that has been the reduction in the connectivity because of the travel restrictions and the border closures."

The Indian community in Australia has accepted the decision to pause the flights.

Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin president Nishi Puri supported the decision to suspend flights from India, suggesting the risk was too high for Australia while it continued to use hotels in major cities for quarantine.

She was hopeful the grim situation in India would improve as more of the population was vaccinated.

Ms Puri thanked the Australian government for "standing in solidarity" with India through the crisis.

She also paid tribute to Australia cricket star Pat Cummins, who has donated $50,000 to purchase medical supplies.

Canberra Sikh Association president Jasvir Gidda also backed the decision.

"It is a good decision from our Prime Minister because there are too many casualties over there [in India]," he said. "It is difficult, but it is a good decision."

Federation of Indian Associations of the ACT president Sunita Dhindsa said as soon as it safe to resume flights, the federal government needed to quickly bring home the thousands of stranded nationals.

Australian aid groups are backing the imminent shipment of Australian medical supplies.

The End Covid For All campaign has endorsed Mr Morrison's announcement that Australia will provide ventilators and personal protective equipment to India as it battles through its Covid outbreak.

"Covid is visiting untold misery on the Indian people and it is important for Australia to step up with proportionate, targeted support where it's needed," the End Covid For All campaign spokesman, Reverend Tim Costello said.

"Ventilators, oxygen concentrators, protective gowns, goggles and face shields are on their way to India. This will directly assist nurses, doctors and health workers to ease and prevent this awful outbreak."

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who has been managing a debilitating snap lockdown in the Perth and Peel regions of WA due to a quarantine leak, supported a suspension on flights to and from India because they are too risky.

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"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."

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This story PM says he is not abandoning Australians as India flights pause first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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