In a savage blow to those who had been waiting weeks to flee India after travel from there to Australia was temporarily banned, those passengers who had tested positive to the virus and their close contacts – 70 people in all – were told they could not board the plane.
The repatriation flight, the first allowed to land in Australia since the ban, was due to arrive in Darwin on Saturday morning.
Australia’s High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell told the ABC that he was disappointed in the last-minute turnaround for those people booked on the flight but now deemed unfit to board.
“My team has worked hard across India to get them bookings on this flight because they are vulnerable,” he said.
But he said all passengers were made aware of the increased testing rules required to fly back to Australia.
“Regrettably those people will have to return home and deal with the COVID that they have, or continue to isolate to prove that they don’t have COVID,” O’Farrell said.
“Until such time that they test negative they won’t be able to fly on one of these facilitated flights.”
There could be more passengers barred as rapid antigen test results are returned later on Friday evening.
Both the PCR and rapid antigen tests are a prerequisite for being able to board.
The 26 per cent positive rate is far higher than the 3.5 per cent rate registered in passengers on the March repatriation flights.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working to put other passengers on the flight but it may prove difficult given the testing requirements.
Melbourne man Sunny had booked on the flight with his mother, but he has tested positive for the virus.
He has been trying to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs but has not been able to.
“We just want to know what is going on,” Sunny told the ABC on Friday.
Sunny and his elderly mother have been stuck in India since last May after facing multiple flight cancellations.
“If I die the Australian government will be responsible.”
The suspension of flights from India ends at midnight on Friday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the controversial weeks-long “pause” had worked.
Active cases of COVID-19 in hotel quarantine have dropped by more than 40 per cent over the past few weeks.
In the Northern Territory, where the first repatriation flights from India will land, the number of active cases has fallen from 53 to four.
“The pause gave our quarantine system much-needed breathing space to minimise the risk of COVID-19 getting out of quarantine into the community and having a third wave here,” Mr Morrison said.
“It’s all about keeping Australians safe and ensuring we can keep living the way we are in Australia, which is like few other countries in the world today.”
Defence Minister Peter Dutton insists the quarantine system will be able to cope when the travel ban lifts and flights from India resume.
Jump to next article