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As Indian 'mercy flights' resume, Dutton insists we're ready to cope

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Defence Minister Peter Dutton insists the quarantine system will be able to cope when a travel ban lifts and flights from India resume.

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The first plane load of Australians from India will land on Saturday morning, after flights were suspended for several weeks to allow the Howard Springs quarantine facility to deal with positive COVID-19 cases before more potentially infectious people arrived.

Dutton said the Commonwealth had been working closely with the Northern Territory government since the India travel ban was imposed.

“We will continue to work particularly with vulnerable groups to help them back into our country as quickly as possible,” he told Nine on Friday.

“We have put in other measures around pre-flight testing and making sure if we’re bringing people out of a zone like India at the moment, we can do it safely so we don’t undo what is a magnificent story here in Australia.”

The Qantas plane will depart Darwin International Airport in the early on Friday afternoon, with just 12 hours to go before a federal government travel ban expires.

The plane will return on Saturday morning to Darwin, where those on board will be transported to the Howard Springs quarantine facility just outside the city.

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner confirmed on Friday the facility will be able to accommodate 2000 quarantining people a fortnight by the end of June.

“We’re expecting 450 from India over the rest of May as well as 600 from London and Istanbul,” he told Seven Network.

Gunner said there was a lot of compassion in Darwin for the Australians and residents trying to get home.

The NT took in the first returning Australians in February last year from Wuhan, China, which was then the global epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.

There have never been any breaches at the facility.

“No complacency,” Gunner said, “but we’ve set ourselves a challenge to always get better”.

On Thursday, the NT government warned the COVID-19 infection rate among those returning from India could be in the double digits.

About 200 repatriated Australians are expected to start their two weeks of quarantine at Howard Springs in the coming week.

They will be some of the most vulnerable cases among the 9000 stranded in the COVID-ravaged sub-continent, which is racking up an average of 300,000 new infections a day.

NT health officials are preparing for 10 per cent of the passengers on Saturday’s flight to be infected – five times more than repatriation flights from other countries.

Three flights are expected to land in Darwin from India during May and early June.

Complicating that story is mixed messages about the timetable for the vaccine rollout.

Dutton insists everyone willing to be vaccinated will receive two shots by the end of this year.

“Now, some people will make a decision that they don’t want the vaccine, and the government is not going to force them to have the vaccine, so let’s be realistic in terms of some parts of society,” he said.

This end of year deadline puts Dutton directly at odds with the prime minister, who has spent the week walking back an end date for the rollout’s completion.

The treasurer and health minister have also clashed on the rollout timeline.

Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles leapt on the mixed messaging.

“You’ve got complete confusion, even with Peter today, as to whether or not there’s going to be two jabs by the end of the year,” Marles said.

“They can’t give you a straight answer in relation to that question and we all know properly vaccinating the country is how we actually more forward and past this in an economic sense.”

The government has ordered 25 million doses of Moderna vaccines, giving its rollout a shot in the arm.

Marles said the vaccine deal should have been secured last year.

“The reason why we are now back on the queue is because the work they’re doing now they didn’t do last year when it mattered,” he said.

“This time last year we knew vaccines were in the pipeline. It was then the government should have been actually spreading the country’s risk.

“Instead, they bet the house on the idea AstraZeneca being manufactured in Australia would be able to do the whole job.”

The first 10 million doses of Moderna are due to arrive this year while the rest – booster jabs for different variants – are slated to be delivered next year.

The Moderna jab has not yet been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration but the company is expected to apply for that soon.

People under 50 are set to receive the Moderna vaccine.

CSL is already making the AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne, while the Pfizer vaccine is fully imported.

A clear flow of supply will be needed as GPs begin the rollout to all Australians aged over 50 next week.

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