The Federal Government has announced that all flights from India will be temporarily suspended while the NT deals with its single highest number of COVID cases linked to repatriation flights.
The ban follows questions about testing in India and reports from Indian news sites that people in the COVID ravaged country are allegedly faking COVID-19 tests to “dodge quarantine rules or travel freely”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this afternoon suspended all flights from India until May 15, with the decision to halt the flights expected to be reviewed before then.
The decision to temporarily halt the flights comes as most Australian jurisdictions called on the Federal Government to completely ban the inbound flights from India as the world’s second most populous country grapples with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic with a record 352,991 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours.
The Northern Territory Government was reluctant to join other states in calling for a flight ban from India and instead waited for the national security committee of cabinet’s decision on a proposal to entirely suspend flights from India, which Mr Morrison announced this afternoon.
It means the flights from India will not be coming to the NT until at least May 15.
Last week, the Morrison Government reduced the number of flights from India by 30 per cent after the virus leaked into the community from a traveller from India in hotel quarantine in Perth.
There are 53 total active cases in the NT, the highest number recorded to date and most of the positive patients are Australian repatriates from India. Four new cases were reported overnight, with three of them from a New Delhi flight on April 17.
The high numbers of positive cases – the highest the NT has had at one time – comes as the NT Government attempts to take over operation of the international quarantine facility, which is scheduled to start next Monday, May 3.
NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles said that two COVID patients are currently admitted at the Royal Darwin Hospital and the rest are at the Howard Springs facility showing mild clinical symptoms. She did not disclose the condition of the two patients at the hospital.
“It’s not only the numbers coming through, and the higher rate of infectivity, so we’re seeing one to two per cent of people infected off flights, other than India’s – the London flight, Frankfurt, for example,” Ms Fyles told Mix104.9 on Tuesday morning before Mr Morrison’s announcement.
“We’re working with the Commonwealth around how we can safely get these people home with the safety of our community coming first, but making sure that we don’t put ourselves at any risk.”
She added that the government should get those vulnerable Australians home from India, and that “our community safety will always come first.”
Australia’s decision to suspend the flights from India brings the country in line with New Zealand, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
Coronavirus testing discrepancies in India
NT Health authorities are questioning whether coronavirus tests done in India are reliable after dozens were detected positive days upon arriving in the Territory.
In a press briefing last Thursday afternoon, Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Charles Pain said that “it [coronavirus tests] can’t really be reliable”.
“It’s possible that these positive cases are emerging since testing, but we are questioning whether the testing is reliable, it can’t really be reliable, if that’s the case,” Dr Pain said.
“Hence why the Australian government has now said that they will begin antigen testing in the country of origin before they board, and although that testing is not quite as good as PCR testing which we conduct, it’s still very good at picking up symptomatic and infectious patients, so where that will be a very useful addition.”
Meanwhile, Quartz India has reported a trend of forging coronavirus tests in the South Asian country allegedly bypass quarantine protocols and travel restrictions.
On April 1, a local government in the western state of Gujarat shut down a couple of diagnostic laboratories after it found that they were selling fake COVID-19 negative test results.
“There have been several incidents where Indians have fudged reports—sometimes on their own,” the report reads.
A source told Quartz India that a fake negative report from a lab costs a mere 2,000Rs or AU$34 on the outskirts of Delhi.
At Mumbai airport, some passengers were caught providing authorities with fake negative reports to get on flights.
“We got to know that some passengers take a COVID-19 negative report from a relative. Then with the help of Photoshop, they change the dates, names, and PAN numbers. Within five minutes, they can create fake RT-PCR reports,” a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation official told Hindustan Times in March.
A report by India Today has also claimed that in December last year a group of people are providing fake COVID results at some of the state-run hospitals across the country.