The Federal Government has announced a temporary pause for incoming flights from India, where a new wave of COVID-19 has pushed hospitals to breaking point with one person reportedly dying from the virus every four minutes in New Delhi alone.
Given the pressure returning travellers from India are placing on hotel quarantine, the government has put flights from the South Asian country on hold until 15 May.
In the meantime, Australia will also be sending medical supplies to India, including one millions surgical masks and 500 ventilators.
The Prime Minister said it was a concern to see an increase in the percentage of cases in hotel quarantine with origins from India.
From 16 April there was a jump in hotel quarantine numbers from all origins, rising from 90 in a week to 143 in the most recent week.
"In this past week we saw that rise, and that was particularly in areas such as the Northern Territory and New South Wales, where we have direct flights into both of those areas.," the Prime Minister said.
"Proportionally, we saw higher numbers in Western Australia and South Australia, but in terms of the total number of cases originating in India then the overwhelming majority of those were in New South Wales and the Northern Territory.
"We don't think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off as some seem to suggest - that's not what my government's going to do. We will stand with the Indian community here and our friends in India as one of our closest and most strategic partners."
He said the pause was necessary to enable those quarantine facilities, particularly in the Northern Territory, to work through the system and return to lower case levels so that direct flights can resume and repatriate Australians.
"One of the challenges going forward is the testing regime for those embarking on flights, and so having the rapid antigen testing in place we think will support that, but that will give us several weeks to put those arrangements in place with the commercial operators," he said.
"Qantas has already indicated that they're able to do that, but working with other operators we'd want to be assured that those mitigations were in place."
The Prime Minister said the situation was escalating rapidly, and he welcomed the fact embarkation points such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore had also been closed off.
"Those flights that were coming from Malaysia and other places were carrying Australians back from other parts of the world where the risk is not as great as it is in India, and so that means Australians will still be able to come home through those flights.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said more than 19,400 Australians have returned from India since March last year.
"Since March of last year we have facilitated 38 flights out of India - 28 flights with Qantas from Delhi, from Chennai and from Kolkata, which have brought back 5,000 passengers," she said.
"When circumstances do allow through this temporary pause, we will resume those flights and if possible seek to review those flights and if possible seek to increase their frequency if we are able to," she said.
"We currently have just over 9,000 Australians registered in India - 650 of those are registered as vulnerable. As you would expect in the circumstances, this number will certainly increase in the coming days and weeks as people's circumstances change."
Minister Payne assured Australians in India and Indian-Australians here that four Indian network posts remain staffed by Australian diplomats who will continue to provide consular assistance to Australians in distress, including through DFAT's financial assistance program.
"Our posts will also be redoubling their efforts to maintain contact with Australian citizens in India to ensure that they are informed about travel settings, about any changes and about assistance programs."
Those consular contact numbers are 1300555135 from within Australia and (+61) 62613205 when calling from outside the country.
"I also want to reaffirm the great leadership and generosity that India has shown to the global community and throughout this pandemic," Minister Payne added.
"They have in fact exported over 66 million WHO-approved vaccines across the world. I know in our own region how important this has been in the Pacific - it includes gifting vaccine doses to Nauru and to Fiji. It has has also manufactured vaccine doses for Papua New Guinea, for the Solomon Islands, which have been delivered through the COVAX facility.
Updated at 3:30pm AEST on 27 April 2021.
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