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The Guardian

Australia limits flights from India as Covid cases rise in hotel quarantine

Scott Morrison denies government is abandoning Australians stranded in India, which is grappling with outbreak of coronavirus transmission • Follow Australian liveblog • “The system has collapsed”: India’s descent into Covid hell • Australians with disabilities are ‘forgotten’ in vaccine rollout Flights from India to Australia will be reduced by 30% after the country reported 295,041 new Covid infections on Wednesday and 1.6 million of cases last week. Photograph: Richard Wainwright / AAP Australia will stop nearly a third of flights from India, which is in the grip of a severe second wave of the Covid pandemic. New restrictions will also be introduced for high-risk countries, which will limit outbound travel and require inbound travelers to take a Covid-19 test before boarding. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the measures Thursday afternoon in an effort to reduce the risk of transmission from India and other countries facing an increase in Covid-19 cases. Flights from India will be reduced by 30%. Travelers from high-risk countries, including India, will need to undergo a Covid-19 PCR test 72 hours before leaving the last port they are in before traveling to Australia. The Australian Border Force will also limit departure exemptions for people traveling to high-risk countries like India, allowing travel only for urgent situations. Countries that should be defined as high risk will look like – but not exactly mirror – the UK’s “red list”, which currently includes India, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Asked whether Australians stranded in India would view the government’s decision as an abandonment, Morrison replied, “It doesn’t reflect that at all. It shows that we are in the midst of a raging global pandemic. And Australia has been successful throughout this pandemic, working with states and territories, to have very effective border arrangements. He said between 10% and 40% of cases reported in hotel quarantine were now people returning to Australia from India. Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy said the risk of importing the virus from high-risk countries was significant. “There are many countries in the world – the Prime Minister was talking about India – which are in very serious situations with Covid and the risk of importation and epidemics of Covid in Australia is still present”, a- he declared. “We cannot be complacent.” Earlier, West Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan said he would ask the Commonwealth to temporarily ban travelers from India following a quarantine outbreak at hotels in the state. The state government has said two recent cases of Covid-19 were the result of transmission at one of its quarantine hotels, the Mercure Hotel in Perth. Two guests were staying in a room opposite a couple who had just returned from India. Genomic sequencing showed that transmission occurred in the hotel. Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan has called for a temporary ban on travelers from India to the national cabinet. Photograph: Richard Wainwright / AAP India is currently struggling with a severe second wave of Covid-19. It reported 295,041 new infections on Wednesday, the world’s largest daily increase, and 1.6 million cases last week. McGowan said 40% of the state’s quarantine cases in the past month were in travelers returning from India, rising from 11% the month before. The prime minister planned to seize the possibility of a ban at Thursday’s national cabinet meeting. “With more and more arrivals from India, we need to seriously consider temporarily restricting travel for people who have been to or through India,” McGowan said. “Pre-test measures before international flights should be reviewed.” But his position was rejected by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who also handled the quarantined transmission in hotels. She said no country should be targeted. “I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate to distinguish one nation from others,” she said. “Things are changing, infection rates are rising and falling across the world. Australians who want to return home should have the right to do so. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian: ‘Australians who want to go home should have the right to do so. Photograph: Jenny Evans / Getty Images McGowan is not alone in calling for such a ban. Australian Medical Association Northern Territory President Robert Parker this week called for travel restrictions after the Howard Springs quarantine facility was hit by its highest number of positive Covid-19 cases since she started taking repatriation flights last year. Two more cases involving travelers returning from India were recorded in Howard Springs on Wednesday, bringing the total to 18 since the weekend. Territorial Health Minister Natasha Fyles said India’s epidemic would continue to be monitored, but said her government had a “humanitarian responsibility” to repatriate vulnerable Australians. Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said earlier that the decision rested with the director of health and the national cabinet at his meeting on Thursday. But he noted Australia’s early decision to close the border with China. “Scott Morrison made the decision early on to close the border with China and it was to Australia’s great advantage,” he said. “We will continue to follow this health advice. Decisions about India or other countries are the responsibility of the health official and ultimately the national cabinet. Other countries have considered or implemented travel bans, restrictions or warnings for India. The UK this week added India to its ‘red list’ of countries, banning non-UK and non-Irish citizens from traveling to the UK from India. The British government has been criticized for acting too slowly to restrict travel from India. Hong Kong, Pakistan and New Zealand have also imposed temporary bans on travelers from India. NSW is currently investigating how three returning travelers from two families contracted the South African variant of the virus after staying at the Mercure hotel in Sydney. Authorities believe the transmission occurred at the hotel, as the individuals were tested and cleared after arriving in Australia. NSW warns that contacts of the three infected have already traveled between states. 40 other returning travelers were staying at the same level of the hotel at the time. “We were successful in reaching 36 of those people, a number went to other states and territories and those states and territories were alerted,” said NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant. She said they were “urgently stepping up” their efforts to contact the remaining four people. Potentially exposed personnel will also need to self-isolate.



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