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Doing all we can, but 9000 Aussies trapped in Indian nightmare


The federal government has promised to do all it can to help the thousands of Australians stranded in India return home once flights restart from the coronavirus battleground.

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Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said about 9000 Australians in India now face the reality of no flights home until at least May 15.

“As soon as its possible for us to look at flights to bring them back to Australia, we will be doing all that we can to make that happen,” she told Sky News on Wednesday.

“Our heart goes out to those people and their families.”

Andrews has encouraged them to use personal protective equipment if they have access to it and to follow health guidelines being promoted in Australia such as social distancing and thorough hand washing.

India has been recording more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases daily.

The government will review health advice closer to May 15 and Australians deemed to be vulnerable will be the priority when flights resume.

Queensland had already sought to reduce international arrivals, due to two Brisbane outbreaks of COVID-19 and a stream of infected travellers from Papua New Guinea, and backed the latest restrictions.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the India travel ban was “the right decision in the interests of our hotel quarantine system and our ability to keep bringing people back from other parts of the world”.

“But clearly from here we’ll need to work with those families (separated or stranded in India) to make sure they have support in India and can return once we can safely bring them back,” Miles said.

Overnight, another nine cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Queensland; two in hotel quarantine and seven on a gas freighter off the Sunshine Coast.

Miles said infected seafarers had previously been managed on ships, without having to be transferred to the mainland, however Queensland Health was working with the crew to determine what was best.

“We’ve been working with them for some time as they steam down from the state’s north,” Miles said.

“Seven cases today (and) it’s possible that we’ll see more over coming days.”

While the 24 active cases in Queensland is lower than during the outbreaks, Queensland Health continues to bolster its defences. An audit of Personal Protective Equipment practices, demanded by the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union, has identified various gaps, while all staff working with COVID-19 patients are required to be vaccinated by May 10.

Australia’s hotel quarantine system is under renewed scrutiny amid a surge of cases from people returning from the South Asian nation.

Australia’s top health officials say they expect COVID-19 transmission to occur within hotel quarantine and believe the system is fit for purpose.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and Health Department boss Brendan Murphy on Tuesday fronted the Senate’s coronavirus response committee in Canberra.

Professor Kelly said hotel quarantine was being continually improved but was broadly achieving good outcomes.

“It’s fit for the purpose, yes,” he told the inquiry.

“In general terms, it has been very successful and very safe.”

The chief medical officer said it was impossible to fully prevent the virus spreading within hotels.

“We expect that there will be transmission in quarantine,” Kelly said.

“The important thing is that it doesn’t transmit outside of quarantine and if it does, that it’s picked up quickly.”

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has written to the committee, raising concern that its scrutiny was taking up time the officials could be spending on Australia’s response to the pandemic.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the “desperate” situation in India highlighted the need to establish dedicated quarantine facilities with open air for returning travellers.

The Australian Medical Association and Labor governments in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria have expressed similar sentiments.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declined to advance Queensland’s proposal for a self-contained facility in Toowoomba.

Murphy said there were no plans to invest in purpose-built facilities and that health officials had examined options including Christmas Island and Defence bases, and none were physically suitable.

Even if a new facility was built, Australia “would not have the public health workforce” to operate it, he said.

The suspension of flights will affect two passenger services into Sydney and two repatriation flights into Darwin, involving about 500 people.

Passengers on future flights will need to show a negative result on two different types of COVID-19 tests before they board.

Indirect flights via such ports as Dubai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have also been paused.

-With Sean Parnell

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