Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday played down the chances of his government imprisoning its citizens returning from India amid the coronavirus pandemic, reported 9News.
Last week, the Australian government had made it illegal for its citizens to travel from India and threatened to penalise the offenders with up to five years in prison and impose fines.
But in an interview to 9News, Morrison said that no one has been jailed so far for avoiding the travel ban and the likelihood of it happening was “pretty much zero”. The order, which came into effect on Monday, was passed under the country’s Biosecurity Act, 2015.
“I think it’s highly unlikely. Highly unlikely,” he said. “In the same way that these powers at their most extreme end have not been used for those sorts of sanctions in the entire time we’ve had these biosecurity regulations in place. So, I think people need to look at this in perspective.”
Morrison added that his priority was to keep the country safe. “I’m not going to fail Australia,” he said. “I’m going to protect our borders at this time.”
The prime minister said that he will use the measures “compassionately and fairly and responsibly” to protect the country. “If we didn’t do this it would seriously jeopardise our ability to do that over the longer term,” he said. “So, we’re acting now to ensure that we can do more over a longer period of time for those who remain in India.”
When imposing the ban last week, the country’s Health Minister Greg Hunt had said that 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.
Speaking to reporters in Rockhampton city on Tuesday, Morrison said that his government was constantly reviewing the ban and he was hoping to resume flights from India after May 15, reported Al Jazeera.
Morrison and his government have faced severe backlash on the ban. Cricket commentator Michael Slater, who is in India for the Indian Premier League, said that if the government cared for its citizens, they would be allowed back home. “It’s a disgrace!!” Slater tweeted. “Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this. How about you sort out [the] quarantine system. I had government permission to work on the IPL but I now have government neglect.”
Rights groups have also hit out at the government over the ban. Even Morrison’s allies, including Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt said the decision “stinks of racism”, reported Al Jazeera.
Earlier, the Australian Human Rights Commission had asked legislators to immediately review the restrictions.
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.
Australia has largely avoided the pandemic using some of the strictest border controls in the world, according to AFP. The country has imposed a blanket ban on travel to-and-from the country unless travellers are able to secure an exemption.
Non-residents have mostly not been allowed entry into the country. Anyone who enters is placed under a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine. However, the system in place came under stress as the infection caused a series of outbreaks in the largely unvaccinated community.
Australia has so far reported 29,850 coronavirus cases and 910 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.