Australia on Tuesday announced a temporary ban on direct passenger flights from India following a massive surge in coronavirus infections.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the suspension would remain in place until at least May 15 due to “clearly present” risks of travel from India, leaving thousands of Australians stranded.
India’s new coronavirus cases stayed above 300,000 for a sixth consecutive day on Tuesday. It reported 2,771 new deaths, but health experts believe the tally is significantly higher.
Last week, Australia had announced that it would cut the number of its citizens able to return from India and other red-zone countries to contain the risk of more virulent strains of Covid spreading.
It follows similar moves by countries including Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Britain to halt or restrict flights in response to the spiralling Covid crisis.
Morrison also said Australia would send medical aid, including oxygen tanks, ventilators and personal protective equipment, to India as its health system strains under the growing caseload.
The nation of 1.3 billion people recorded 352,991 new infections and 2,812 deaths on Monday — its highest levels since the pandemic began.
Morrison said India was enduring a “terrible humanitarian crisis” that was also hitting Australian families with ties to the country.
“The scenes that we’re seeing from India are truly heartbreaking,” he said.
The flight ban comes a day after authorities lifted stay-at-home orders for two million people in Perth, in Australia’s west, where a snap lockdown was imposed after a man who returned from his wedding in India infected others in quarantine.
The virus then spread to others in the community, prompting calls from some state leaders for Canberra to toughen its approach to travel from the subcontient.
Morrison stressed that the suspension was not a permanent measure, saying repatriation flights would resume with the “most vulnerable” given priority.
“We don’t think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off, as some seem to suggest,” he said, adding there would be no special treatment for cricketers currently playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Australia had already limited the number of flights from India in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus, which has largely been contained Down Under.
Earlier this month, neighbouring New Zealand imposed a temporary block on all travellers from India, shutting out returning Kiwis for the first time since the pandemic emerged.
Australia closed its international borders to most non-citizens in March 2020 and those allowed to travel must spend 14 days in quarantine hotels on their return.
The quarantine system has largely helped Australia to keep its Covid-19 numbers relatively low, with just under 29,700 cases and 910 deaths.