Repatriation flights from India will resume on May 15, the Federal and NT governments have confirmed, following backlash from Indian Australians and human rights groups that claimed the hardline rule was “racist” and that they were left “abandoned”.
The NT Government has assured federal health authorities that it is able to manage the flights, suggesting it could conformably manage 50 COVID-positive cases at a time, and up to 100 cases at capacity.
The NT will not be taking all of the flights as previously suggested, with other flights from India landing in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.
The ban which was announced on April 27, had deferred flights for the roughly 9,000 returning Aussies stuck in the coronavirus-ravaged country – 10 per cent of whom are considered vulnerable, according to the Federal Government.
The NT Government said on Friday that an estimated 1,000 Australians are expected to be quarantined at the Howard Springs facility by the end of June. Vulnerable Australians would be prioritised.
Two repatriation flights to the Northern Territory from India are scheduled before the end of the month; the first flight will leave India on May 15 with around 150 passengers, according to NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker.
Mr Chalker said flights from Istanbul, London, Vancouver, and South Africa are currently continuing to land in Darwin.
A peak of 1,200 repatriates from all over the globe are expected to be quarantined in the Territory this month and another 2,000 estimated to arrive in June, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said.
Mr Gunner denied that the number of repatriates to be received in the Howard Springs centre has nothing to do with the recruitment process to man the centre, adding that the government is on track with its hiring process and “it’s just about the timing of the flights.”
NT Health has also announced a stricter testing regime to repatriates from India before boarding their flights where both a negative COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and a negative Rapid Antigen are required.
Allegations of improper or fraudulent testing in the South Asian country to “dodge quarantine rules or travel freely” were raised last month after dozens returned positive tests once in Darwin.
Acting Chief Health Officer Dr Charles Pain said new precautions would be in place for the new flights.
“There will be initial PCR testing, which clearly had had some problems initially, so now the Australian government who will oversee that there is antigen testing daily,” he said at Friday’s news briefing.
Dr Pain also said that there is the possibility to pause flights again if the number of COVID-19 positive repatriates exceed 10 per cent.
“My view on it, is that it won’t be a complete stop-start, we will slow flights down and pause them rather than have a have a stop-stop, we can manage the flow based on the numbers of positives,” he said.
Dr Pain said exceeding the 10 per cent threshold would not be permitted to happen.
“I’m confident we won’t get to that point,” he said.
“We’re going to be actively managing this from now on with all the measures that we’ve put in place, and we won’t let that happen.
“We’ve got the capacity at Howard springs to manage 100 patients that are positive, we’re not going to reach that level, we’re going to aim for about 50, but again we’ll manage towards that level at the moment, this has to be set at about 21. So you can see the sort of range, but we won’t let it get to, to a level where it’s overwhelming.”
The Ausmat team was handling a peak of 55 cases last week at the Howard Springs facility, which had reduced to 21 active cases yesterday.
The lifting of the flight ban from India comes as the NT Government is transitioning to integrate the domestic and international wing of the quarantine facility.