Australia has joined a growing list of countries temporarily banning flights from India. On Tuesday, Australia “paused” flights from India until mid-May. That’s impacting up to eight planned Qantas repatriation flights from India and causing further problems for Australians who are stranded there.
Travel ban leaves vulnerable Australians stranded
More than 12 months after COVID-19 struck, Australian citizens continue to struggle to get home. Around 9,000 Australians remain stranded in India and registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs, wanting to get home. Around 650 of these are classed as vulnerable – that is, either ill, under-age, out of money, housing, or visas.
Most Australians in the latter group had secured a highly sought-after seat on upcoming repatriation flights home. Now, stranded Australians are being told there will be no flights home until June.
Before the travel downturn, Air India was the only airline providing nonstop links between India and Australia. The New Delhi-based airline flew to Sydney and Melbourne. Air India suspended its flights to Australia last year. However, since then, the airline has run ad hoc repatriation flights.
Qantas last scheduled regular flights to India in 2012, when it flew to Mumbai via Singapore. Normally, Singapore Airlines does a brisk two-way business catering to the demand, flying passengers between Australia and India via its Singapore hub.
While Singapore has relaxed its slightly border and transit rules for Australians, it has also joined the list of countries suspending passenger and airline traffic from India.
Lack of quarantine beds cause a backlog of people wanting to get home
Until this week, Qantas had been operating an ongoing series of repatriation flights from India in an attempt to gradually get stranded Australians home. Limiting the number of flights Qantas can operate and the number of people it can fly is the availability of quarantine beds in Australia.
Everyone entering Australia must under-go 14-days of quarantine. Politicians, celebs, and the better connected usually score a free pass to do that at home. The rest of the hoi-polloi have to go to a supervised quarantine facility, typically a downtown city hotel.
According to the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications, around 5,500 people can enter Australia every week. There’s also a smaller second arrival stream. The Australian Government uses a former mining camp outside Darwin as a quarantine facility for most Qantas repatriation flights. That camp can accommodate 850 people per fortnight. This is soon to increase to 2000 people per fortnight.
The lack of quarantine beds limits the number of people airlines can fly into Australia. That has left tens of thousands of Australians stranded worldwide more than a year after this began.
No sign of Australian border restrictions easing
Despite opening a recent travel bubble with New Zealand and talk of a travel bubble with Singapore, the Australian Government shows little sign of dropping its fortress Australia position.
The Government is taking heat over a botched COVID-19 vaccination rollout where they over-promised and under-delivered. They are now making a political decision that it’s better to keep international borders shut for as long as it takes to minimize the risk of any real or perceived COVID-19 outbreaks
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said last week that even if the entire country was vaccinated, “you couldn’t just open the borders.”
“We still have to look at a series of different factors: transmission, longevity, and the global impact,” Minister Hunt said.
“We’re then looking at other countries within the Pacific and within the region that are potentially low-transmission environments.
“So a series of safety milestones as we progress forward, which allow us to open up.”
That’s not what tens of thousands of Australians stranded in India and elsewhere will want to hear.