SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian residents and citizens who have been in India within 14 days of the date they plan to return home will be banned from entering Australia as of Monday (May 3) and those who disobey will face fines and jail, government officials said.
The emergency determination, made late on Friday, is part of strict measures to stop travellers to Australia from the world's second most populous nation as it contends with a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
The restrictions come into effect from May 3 and breaching the ban risks civil penalties and up to five years imprisonment, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement.
"Our hearts go out to the people of India - and our Indian-Australian community. The friends and family of those in Australia are in extreme risk. Tragically, many are contracting Covid-19 and many, sadly, are dying every day," Mr Hunt said.
The Australian government will reconsider the restrictions on May 15, he said.
India's coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 this week, and cases are nearing 19 million - nearly 8 million since February - as virulent new strains have combined with "super-spreader" events such as political rallies and religious festivals.
Dr Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India said the decision to "criminalise" Australians returning from India was disproportionate and overly punitive.
"Indian-Australians are seeing this as a racist policy because we are being treated different than people from other countries who have had similar waves of infection like the US, the UK and Europe. It is very hard to feel anything other than targeted as an ethnic group."
A spokesman for the Health Minister "deeply" rejected the view that stopping arrivals from India temporarily was a biased measure, saying it was a difficult but necessary decision that applied "to all people no matter their nationality, race or religion."
Human rights groups also voiced indignation at the ban, suggesting the government’s focus should be on improving its quarantine system, not on punishment.
"This is an outrageous response. Australians have a right of return to their own country," Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, Ms Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
"The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments."
Australia, which has no community transmissions, on Tuesday introduced a temporary suspension of direct flights from India to prevent more virulent Covid-19 variants entering the country.
However, some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, returned via Doha.
"The Government does not make these decisions lightly. However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level," Mr Hunt said.
Australia has all but stamped out the coronavirus from its shores after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Travellers now have to undergo a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense, a system that has largely helped Australia to keep its Covid-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 29,800 cases and 910 deaths.