Australia to reopen door to India, local Covid-19 cluster appears contained

Commuters, some wearing masks, stand on a train platform at Central Station in Sydney on May 6, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia will lift a ban on its citizens returning from Covid-ravaged India next week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday (May 7), as state officials reported that an outbreak in Sydney appeared to be contained.

Mr Morrison stood by his decision to impose a biosecurity order last month barring all travel to and from India, a policy that drew heavy criticism from lawmakers, expatriates and the Indian diaspora.

He said the travel ban, which was controversially backed by jail terms and financial penalties for anybody who attempted to circumvent it by flying via a third country, had prevented Australia's hotel quarantine system from being overwhelmed.

"The order that we have put in place has been highly effective, it's doing the job that we needed it to do, and that was to ensure that we could do everything we can to prevent a third wave of Covid-19 here in Australia," Mr Morrison told reporters.

Australia will charter three repatriation flights between May 15 and May 31, prioritising around 900 people deemed most vulnerable, Morrison said. The government estimates around 9,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents are in India.

Prospective travellers will need to return a negative Covid-19 test, and will be required to undertake the standard 14-day hotel quarantine imposed on incoming travellers.

Mr Morrison said his government is unlikely to allow the resumption of direct commercial flights from India in the near term and has instead asked state authorities to accept additional repatriation flights.

The Australian leader, who has rejected suggestions the hardline approach will damage the country's bilateral relations with India, said he will speak with his counterpart Narendra Modi later on Friday.

Sydney outbreak stable

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian, meanwhile, said New Zealand's decision to partially suspend a travel bubble with Australia as a result of new infections in Sydney was an "overreaction."

State health officials were still trying to track the missing links in the case of a 50-year-old man who was diagnosed earlier this week with an Indian variant of Covid-19 that he passed on to his wife.

Genomic sequencing had linked the case to a returned traveller from the United States, but there was no clear transmission path between the two people.

However, state health officials reported on Friday that more than 13,000 tests conducted over the past 24 hours had found no additional cases, easing concerns about a wider outbreak.

Ms Berejiklian on Thursday imposed new social distancing restrictions in greater Sydney, including mask wearing on public transport and limits on home gatherings.

With many people expected to gather over the weekend for annual Mother's Day celebrations, the restrictions are scheduled to remain in place until Monday morning.

"We may never find that missing link," Ms Berejiklian told the Nine Network "Today" show about the Sydney case, the first in NSW in more than a month.

"That's why we ask everybody to come forward and get tested. Every time there's a positive case, we can match it to see if it's part of the same strain."

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