PM refusing to budge on India travel pause

Scott Morrison is refusing to back down from the India travel ban despite a torrent of criticism.
Scott Morrison is refusing to back down from the India travel ban despite a torrent of criticism.

Scott Morrison is refusing to back down from the India travel ban despite a torrent of criticism from high-profile figures and within conservative ranks.

The government is downplaying a threat to jail or fine people who dodge the flight pause, which is in place until at least May 15 because of India's coronavirus catastrophe.

Former Test cricketer Michael Slater, who is attempting to return home from a commentary stint in India, said the prime minister had blood on his hands over the decision.

While Mr Morrison labelled the accusation absurd on breakfast TV, he tempered his language at a news conference.

"I respectfully disagree with the critics on this one," he told reporters in Mackay on Tuesday.

"But the buck stops here when it comes to these decisions. I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave."

The prime minister said the rapid escalation of cases arriving from India put enormous pressure on the quarantine regime but denied it showed the system's weakness.

Mr Morrison has committed to continually review the travel pause.

India recorded more than 300,000 new cases for a 12th straight day but medical experts warn the real number could be up to 10 times higher.

The government is backing away from a threat to jail or fine people who dodge the travel ban.

"The likelihood of any sanction, anything like that is extremely remote," Mr Morrison told the Nine Network.

Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong questioned why the government announced the punitive measures if there was no intention of using them.

"Is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline that's now blown up in your face? That's not a way to handle this global pandemic," she told ABC radio.

In a bid to ease concerns over the ban, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is set to meet with Indian community leaders on Wednesday.

Federation of Indian Associations of NSW president Yadu Singh said he was hopeful Mr Hawke would do something to deal with what had been a "clumsy and not caring" strategy by the government.

He said Australians in India deemed to be vulnerable should be given priority to return and quarantine.

There are about 9000 Australians in India who want to return home with 650 considered vulnerable.

"I would not call these decisions by the Australian government racist, but it was not done in a proper and helpful way," Mr Singh told Sky News.

Eight cross bench members and senators have written to the prime minister urging him to revoke the ban, urgently repatriate the most vulnerable and set up facilities that are "safe, reliable and available for increasing quarantine needs".

They included Adam Bandt, Rebekha Sharkie, Helen Haines, Zali Steggall, Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter and senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff.

The crossbenchers said the threat of jail "sets a dangerous precedent".

"We all like to sing the song 'I still call Australia home', but that doesn't apply to Australians in India? Fair bloody go," Mr Katter said.

Infectious disease expert Dr Nick Coatsworth said "safe national quarantine" did not mean providing facilities that can cater for large numbers of COVID-positive patients.

"That's called a hospital," he tweeted.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan fears Australia is falling into a trap of pursuing perfection in coronavirus management at the expense of other obligations.

The Australian Medical Association is also urging the government to drop the threat of jail and fines, while also committing to bring the vulnerable cohort home as soon as the flight pause is lifted.

The government imposed the ban on advice from Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, who warned Australians could die in India during the pause.

Australian Associated Press