Guardian News and Media/ Canberra
The Australian government needs to do more to avoid a repeat of the scores of seats left empty on the first post-ban repatriation flight from virus-ravaged India, one community leader has said.
Eighty Australians touched down in Darwin yesterday morning and were moved to the Howard Springs quarantine facility on the city’s outskirts.
But about 70 seats reserved for returning Australians were empty after 40 people tested positive before the flight from Delhi, with another 30 identified as close contacts.
Dr Yadu Singh, the president of the Federation of Indian Associations of New South Wales and the head of the Council of Indian Federations of Australia, said: “They need to think about a different mechanism so as not to waste those seats.”
Total cases of Covid-19 have topped 24mn in India, with the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, saying the country was “on a war footing” as more than 4,000 people died from the virus for a third straight day.
India is experiencing a spread of cases associated with the B.1.617 variant, which some experts say could be more transmissible than other variants.
The World Health Organisation this week declared it a “variant of concern”.
Indian community leaders in Australia said statewide lockdowns in the subcontinent and higher case numbers in cities was making the job of repatriating Australians harder.
Some 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents have told the government they want to return from India.
First in line for repatriation flights are about 1,000 people the government has deemed vulnerable.
Singh said he sympathised with the people who were blocked from travelling, but it was the right decision to protect other people.
He said: “I’m very pleased the flight has arrived. But what they could do differently is have a mechanism to bring people to the city where the plane is leaving and have them in quarantine and test them several times.
“I hope they will learn from what has happened and have a better testing system to bring as many as possible home.
“They are Australian citizens and there are moral obligations to look after them.”
The department of foreign affairs and trade declined to answer Guardian Australia’s questions about whether efforts had been made to fill seats that became available on the repatriation flight and if a standby system would be in place for future flights.
The department also did not say if the government had plans to set up quarantine for Australians stuck in India to isolate before the flight.
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