Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday defended his government’s decision to impose a jail term and a penalty for its citizens trying to return from India, saying it was in the country’s “best interests”, reported PTI.

“It [the restriction] has been put in place to ensure that we do not get a third wave here in Australia and that our quarantine system can remain strong,” Morrison told 2GB radio channel.

The Australian government had made it illegal for its citizens to travel from India, penalising the offenders with up to five years in prison and fines. The decision came into effect on Monday.

The country’s Health Minister Greg Hunt had said the new rule was based on the “proportion of overseas travellers in quarantine in Australia, who have contracted the infection in India”. About 9,000 of the 35,000 Australians stranded overseas are in India, which is logging an alarming surge in coronavirus cases, reported Reuters.

On Monday, the country’s prime minister said the ban was a temporary arrangement and a very difficult decision to make.

“We’ve seen a seven-fold increase in the rate of infection of those in our Howard Springs facility [quarantine facility in Northern Territory of Australia] coming back from India,” he said. “It’s important that we ensure that we have a temporary pause here to strengthen those arrangements in those quarantine facilities, get stronger testing arrangements, both when leaving India but also on people coming from third countries.”

He said that he feels terrible for the Indian community and wants repatriation flights running safely again. “These are the things we have to do to ensure I can do that, so I can. We’ve already brought home some 20,000 people from India through supported flights and facilitated flights, and they were just those who are registered. And so that has been a big effort to get people home,” Morrison said.

He denied allegations that the decision was a racist one, pointing out that no one has been jailed using the Biosecurity Act, 2015, under which the ban was imposed, since the pandemic began, reported 2GB.

“This is about health, the same accusations were made... over a year ago when we closed the borders to mainland China,” he told the radio channel. “There’s no politics or ideology in a pandemic, and I am constantly taken aback by those who seek to inject it into it.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission has asked legislators to immediately review the restrictions. In a statement, the commission said it will directly approach the government directly with its concerns.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese also criticised the decision. “Australia has obligations to our citizens, to people who are Australians – not just to abandon them overseas but then to threaten them is quite an extraordinary action,” Albanese had said on Sunday.

“We should be helping Aussies in India return not jailing them,” tweeted Senator Matthew Canavan. “Let’s fix our quarantine system rather than leave our fellow Australians stranded.”

Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, an expert health advice group, told the government that the risk coming from India had reached a “benchmark of concern”.

India on Monday registered 3,68,147 new coronavirus infections, taking the overall cases count to 19,925,604 in the country since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. India has been reporting over 3 lakh cases for more than 10 days and the daily count has once also crossed the 4-lakh mark. The toll rose by 3,417 to 2,18,959.

In April, Australia had banned all direct flights from India till May 15 amid the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. On April 30, the country extended the ambit of flight ban from India by shutting transit routes through Doha, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.