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 committee looking into 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 India – including 950 classed as vulnerable.
The vulnerable children include “173 clients registered as under 18 in India outside 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 said. Qantas doesn’t take unaccompanied minors, meaning their only options to get home are Air India and special repatriation flights, which are not scheduled 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 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. O’Farrell said that with high infection rate and the death of about 4,000 people, Australian citizens may be among the deaths.
O’Farrell 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.
Some stranded people said that the Australian government had been “totally insensitive to stranded Australians. The daily fear of going out and contracting Covid was with us every day and it still is now, the situation is so bad,” one stranded man said. Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly 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.